Let, first service: The breakdown of the serve and return in children’s communication

A great tennis analogy, the serve and return, exists to describe the best way to support and shape children’s brain development. A child “serves” by initiating communication, and then an adult “returns” serve in a way that models and builds upon their language attempt.

A serve can be non-verbal (a smile or gesture) or verbal. Babies start serving and building these neural pathways that will form the foundation of their brain architectures from birth. This interactive game of serve and return, played with a spirit of genuine engagement and curiosity is how children best learn to communicate and strengthen their language skills. It also builds the bonds of trust, attachment and security between a child and their caregiver.

It’s Australian Open time and we are currently in the grips of tennis fever, which has got me thinking about an extension to this analogy. That is, when a child serves a “let” in their game of interaction.

A “let” is an authentic attempt to serve, and it lands inside the court, but it’s obstructed in its delivery by the net and therefore there’s no attempt at a return. I’ve seen this time and time again, at cafés, shopping centres and, in my own living room.

So what plays the role of the net in this analogy?

What is the barrier between a child’s serve and their communication partner’s lack of attempt to return serve?
No prizes for guessing, it’s our phones.

I’ve seen babies and children patiently attempt to serve, with no response, then again, no response. Again and this time more agitated, no response. One more time, pulling on the adult’s shirt, no response. Then the child yells, adult puts their phone down and says “what?!”.
The thing is that the adult genuinely did not hear the child’s first four attempts. Research has found we literally can’t hear what is going on around us when engrossed in our phones.

Of course we can’t return every single serve that is sent our way, and research shows that the occasional misfire can actually build children’s resilience. But number of things can happen when a child’s communication serve is consistently unreturned. Children who don’t receive rich language input and interactive experiences to support their development in the early years are significantly more likely to have delayed communication development, difficulties learning to read and difficulties achieving at school. This makes sense as each of these areas require strong knowledge of language and strong communication skills. Additionally, research has shown that when children’s communication attempts are regularly ignored over time their brain structure changes, impacting emotional attachment, trust and vulnerability. 

The purpose of this article isn’t to chastise parents and caregivers. I’ll be the first to admit I do this too. In this modern world so much of our life administration occurs on our phones, we steal moments between running from A to B to pay bills, organise appointments and answer emails. Unfortunately this isn’t just a turn of phrase, it’s an accurate representation of what our phones do. They steal moments.

But like it or not, for the foreseeable future, phones are here to stay. Learning to navigate raising children in such a technologically connected world is challenging because we are the first generation of parents to have grappled with the ever-present nature of devices. So it’s important for us to find a way to balance the many conveniences brought about by phones with the potential harm than can come from being disengaged or temporarily deaf when they are in our hands.

No parent or caregiver is perfect, as Dr Jack Shonkoff from the Brain Architectures podcast so eloquently puts it: “the best parents in the world do a dozen things wrong every day…raising healthy competent children is much more a bumbling art than a precise science”.

So, no, the purpose of this article is not to chastise, but simply to heighten our consciousness to the communication opportunities around us and the amazing impact we can have upon children’s lives by taking up these opportunities. If we return just one more serve a day that would give a two year old 1,095 more chances to strengthen their communication by the time they turn five. Imagine if we returned two or three more serves? We cant always be perfect, but every extra interaction counts. Every new connection is worth it.

Much has been said about the negative impact of children having devices upon their communication development, and these concerns are certainly valid. But I fear that in the game of serve and return, the most dangerous devices obstructing children’s attempts to serve are the ones in our hands. So now that I’ve stolen a few moments of your time to read this on your device, pop it down go play some tennis.

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