I’ve been living with my daughter, her husband and their baby for most of the pandemic. Watching Cathleen care for little Uma Joy has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I’ve seen good mothers before. Cathleen is in another galaxy. I give lectures on child development and responsive parenting. Cathleen lives and breathes it. And Umi is the happiest, most beautifully behaved baby I have ever seen.
Sayeth the Objective Grandma.
I have evidence, though. I’ve been taking pictures. I now have a library of illustrations for Perfect Parenting 101.
We begin with Serve and Return. You can read the article at the Harvard Centre for the Developing Child (which is a fabulous resource) or you could just come and visit us and watch these two in action.
Serve and Return is the cornerstone of any relationship, but most especially the one between a parent and a young child. It’s a back-and-forth dance (or a ping-pong game) which is built on observation, turn-taking and responsiveness. Through constant repetition, it actually creates the neural pathways in a baby’s brain which lead to all future learning and development. It’s not hard to do and babies and parents are hard-wired for the serve and return pattern. Some just need a little help to see what the other one is up to.
Step One: Notice what your baby is noticing (that’s her serve; your response).
When you share her interest, you’re telling her that curiosity is good, that the world is full of interesting things and that you really want to know what she’s excited about.
But you are also helping her brain to make those new connections (I point to something and Mommy stops to see what I’m looking at) and giving her a sense of her importance in the world.
Step Two: Respond with a smile, a question, a comment (your turn to serve – you’re returning that ping-pong ball)
Sometimes, all that’s needed is a simple acknowledgement: “Yes, that’s a bird! Look how high it flies!”
Or a helpful action: “You want that box? Here it is! Can you open it?”
Or just affirmation: “I see your toes!”
It’s really important for a child to know that their attempts at communication are recognized and understood. They may not have words yet, but when you encourage them with a meaningful response, they will keep on trying to express themselves.
Step Three: Name it!
Language is a big part of what makes us human. It is our agreed-upon way to make sense of the world around us: we have words for objects, relationships and feelings. When we give a child the word for what she is holding, or looking at, or feeling, we are helping them to understand the connection between language and lived experience. Long before she can speak herself, her brain is creating the pathways she needs to link words to feelings, objects and actions.
Don’t worry if it seems like you are doing all the talking right now. Think of this time as putting deposits in the bank. Your baby’s brain is storing up all you are telling her for that magical day when everything comes together for her to finally form her own words to express her thoughts, her ideas, her dreams.
Step Four: Wait.
This is so important. And it’s hard! We are so eager for our babies to meet their milestones, learn a thousand words and begin to talk in full sentences that we forget that it all happens at its own pace and that every child is different.
But giving a child a chance to respond makes all the difference. Uma is super-smart. But it takes her a little while to connect the smiling man walking past her stroller to the part of her brain that wants to greet him to her hand waving hello to him. Unless he has kids himself, he’s quite likely to walk on by before she’s had the chance to respond to him.
Communication is all about the back and forth. Give your child the gift of time.
Step Five: Recognize when it’s over.
Kids are masters of being done. Even though literally 30 seconds earlier they were utterly engrossed in the game you were playing together or the story you were telling them, they will tumble out of your lap and on to the next adventure with never a backward glance.
Sometimes they are a little more subtle, as when they stop looking at the pictures in a storybook or begin to fuss, but if you pay attention – you’ll get the message: They’re done.
Don’t push them to continue if they’re no longer interested. We are in charge of just about everything in a baby’s world. Letting them take the lead sometimes is a really important experience for them to have. It allows them to make choices and weigh options – so crucial for good decision-making in later life. And it shows them that what they like is just as valid as what Mom or Dad like, that everybody’s different and that’s OK.