Our guest author this week is Lewis R. First, M.D., Professor and Chair of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine and Chief of Pediatrics at the Vermont Children’s Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care. Dr. First is also editor-in-chief of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics and educates the community weekly with television, radio, and newspaper features entitled “First with Kids.”

"Serve and Return" Interactions with Children

With summer here, tennis playing is in full swing—but have you ever thought about how tennis terms might relate to social interactions with your child? Even if you don’t play the game, you are familiar with the term “serve” and “return” as players send the ball back and forth over the net. Well, “serve and return” may be just as critical when you communicate and interact with your infant, even if your infant is still smaller than a tennis racket.

Social interaction is the most important kind of stimulation a young child needs for healthy development and exemplifies what serving and returning are all about. If, for example, your young baby serves up a bid for attention (like a coo), as a parent you need to respond or return that serve in a direct and meaningful way by making sure baby can see your smiling face or touch your hand to show the baby that they have your attention. These interactions play the critical role of strengthening brain connections between all of the different areas of the baby’s brain—helping them develop the emotional and cognitive skills they need for life.

Serve and return interactions start simple and become increasingly complex over time. As your infant gets older, he or she will engage in more specific “serve” interactions that develop particular areas of the brain. For example, when a child points at an object (serve) and the parent responds with the name of that object (return), the child makes the mental correlation between the object and the corresponding sound. During early school age years, the return may be not just the naming of what was something is, but showing that the object and the name sound can also be represented by marks on a page—letters. Through this process, your child is developing the language and literacy area of her or his brain.

When it comes to emotional development, serve and return interactions can help children:

  • Develop self-confidence
  • Cope with stress in a healthy way
  • Learn the difference between right and wrong
  • Develop compassion
  • Form friendships

When you are sensitive and responsive to your baby’s needs and the signals “served” by your baby, the “return” creates a loving and supportive environment that’s rich in emotional and cognitive interactions.

On the other hand, the absence of good serve and return interactions in a child’s environment can be detrimental to development. If a caregiver’s responses are unreliable or inappropriate, a child’s brain development may be disrupted—resulting in impaired physical, mental and emotional health.

Hopefully thinking about “serve and return” as you interact with your infant and child will “net” you and your child a victory and “set” your child up with a foundation for future learning, skill-building and social-emotional development that will allow your little one to succeed in life. When we give children quality early experiences that enable them to reach their full potential, we truly are “First” with our kids!


To see an example of how important serve and return interactions are, watch this demonstration in which a mother stops "returning" her child's bids for attention--and note the effect that has on the baby. Share this video with your Facebook and Twitter networks!

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.