The Most Important Thing Dads Can Do for Baby: Serve and Return

Serve: baby does something. Return: you react in kind. (Image: Thinkstock)

This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project and has been republished with permission. 

Overstating the importance of meaningful verbal interaction is impossible; so is exaggerating the peril of disengagement.

If the title reads like clickbait, trust me: it’s not.

Because while baby-proofing power outlets, stocking up on organic wipes and sheets, and double-checking that crib specs are up to code is all well and good, almost certainly none of that will impact the rest of your child’s life.

But whether or not you “serve and return” could very likely change the course of your baby son or daughter’s life, for good or ill. Forever.

I’m not one for overstatement; the research here is rock solid. And while “serve and return” is borrowed lingo from tennis (hopeful we have some fellow Del Potro fans in the house), the practice has nothing at all to do with sports.

When it comes to babies, “serve and return” refers to meaningful, face-to-face interaction with the little one: the sort of conversation where you’re not just talking at baby, but watching his reactions, and responding in kind.

Does little guy kick his feet? You do the same. Does she smile and coo? Well, it’s time to look ridiculous, paste on Disney dad face, and get excited about grins and giggles.

Serve: baby does something. Return: you react in kind.

Why is this so important?

This type of interaction forms the actual structure for healthy brain development. Seriously.

PBS has been highlighting the enormous importance of this baby/parent interaction, showing how kids who get regular “serve and return” parenting benefit. It’s huge. They certainly are more likely to reach developmental milestones, sure. But the impact on a child’s emotional health is likewise extraordinary.

To see a more scientific explanation, check out Harvard’s informative video here. The term they use is illuminating: meaningful verbal interaction shapes a baby’s brain “architecture.”

And since the brain determines emotional and mental health, not to mention future academic and career potential, there really isn’t anything more important. Doing this one thing gives your precious little one a solid foundation in life.

Serve. Return.

To borrow again from sports jargon: Just do it.


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