Dear Dr. Debbie,
I get a nice break from work this week and next — I’m a high school teacher — so I’m looking forward to spending quality time with my 2-year-old and 6-year-old. Our regular schedule seems so rushed. Daddy gets the kids off to day care and school since I’m long gone when they wake up. The evening hustle includes errands, and getting everyone home, fed and to bed. What do you recommend we focus on during some slowed down family time?
Don’t miss last week’s column Preparing the family for a move — Good Parenting
Dear Holiday Mom,
It doesn’t matter so much what you do with your children as how you do it. Use family time to forge the best possible relationships with each other. Young children especially, but all relationships in general, benefit from what’s known in the child development world as “serve and return interactions.” The term comes from tennis. Imagine a well-aimed serve making contact with the racquet on the other side of the net. Hitting the sweet spot assures the ball will sail back over for another whack. One person’s action has an impact on the other person, whose reaction prompts another reaction and so on. Two well-matched players can enjoy a nice long round of back and forth volleys before the ball goes out of play.
Watch this short video to see serve and return played out between young children and their caregivers.
Certainly you’ve experienced this with your family members. Peek-a-boo is a good example of a serve and return interaction with an infant. Your briefly hidden face continues to make its reappearance to the mutual delight of the players. Variations often come from the adult — making funny faces or shifting from hiding the adult’s face to hiding the baby’s face. By the time he’s a toddler, a child knows the game well enough to try a new variation on you, adding a noise or gesture, or peeking out from behind the couch. Lots of predictable repetition is the best way to play with a young child. The interaction goes on as long as both players are having fun.
Your 2-year-old is probably enjoying reading picture books with you. And likely there are favorites that he or she has memorized by the 100th reading. When you carry out story reading as a serve and return interaction, there are volleys back and forth between you that make this time both predictable and enjoyable. “What’s coming next?” you ask as you turn the page, and even though you both know the book by heart, your child savors the moment he proudly announces that it’s “the rabbit!” that is coming next.
A 6-year-old may still enjoy this serve and return method of sharing a well-known picture book. He or she could also be branching out to lots of other interests. Be on the lookout for opportunities to serve and return through playing a simple card game (War is a good one to start with), or building together with blocks, or baking a batch of cookies to bring when you go visiting, or taking a walk to look for wildlife in the neighborhood. When actions, phrases, thoughts and feelings begin to fall into a groove, you’re cementing your relationship. Serve and return. Repeat.
The key is to initiate an engagement that you think the child would enjoy and to also be responsive to the child’s bids to connect with you. Each person’s appropriately engaged reaction is evidence that the two of you are truly connecting through this activity. Hit each other’s sweet spot. Serve and return. Keep the volley going.
It takes just a bit more skill to serve and return among three or more people, but this should also be a goal of your family time. Although your children are a few years apart, capitalize on activities they can engage in with you as well as each other at the same time. Make believe play is one example. Typical scenes your younger child might suggest involve repetitions of carrying out a family meal and taking someone to the doctor’s office. Your older child might direct repeat performances of good triumphing over evil — the rainforest animals (or snowy owls or blue whales) are saved by the environmentalists and the bad guys repent. When the interest wanes, take turns proposing the next activity for the whole family to do together.
Such attentive interactions not only support harmonious family life, brain scientists tell us this is how to foster good brain development. Repeat stimulations of the same pathway make the nerves stronger. The nerves themselves actually become slightly thicker each time the same pathway is stimulated, increasing the weight of the brain. By age 6, the brain is about 98 percent of its adult weight. When life is too unpredictable and random, the brain may make a loose connection for an experience that is quickly forgotten because it never occurs again. When a familiar “volley” occurs in your interactions, a well-established neural pathway gets stimulated. Your child says, “Ooh, I see a squirrel!” You respond (as you usually do), “Yes, I see it, too! What’s this one doing?” The child describes the squirrel’s actions and the parent restates what the child has just said. Maybe you add a refrain, this time of year it could be “Got to stay warm in the winter!” And the loop starts over again as the two of you look for the next animal.
Research suggests that children with responsive, engaged caregivers fare better academically as well as have more emotional control. Here’s another loop — children and adults who are emotionally intelligent (aware of and in control of their emotions) are good at relationships. Your warm attentions have among other positive benefits, the ability to teach your children how to be a good parent.
Best use of your family time? Serve and return. Repeat.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com