Last week, a video of a dad talking to his 19-month-old son broke the internet.
In the clip, Tennessean comedian DJ Pryor talks to his son, Kingston Pryor, about the finale of the TV show Empire. While Kingston can’t formulate intelligible sentences, this doesn’t seem to faze DJ, who happily carries on conversing with his son as he babbles and gestures adorably at the TV.
The video has been watched more than 55 million times and shared 1.5 million times on Facebook alone. As CNN’s Chris Cuomo explained in an interview with the father and son last week, “All parents can relate, that we wish we could be like you in those moments; how you made it something.”
The video is more than just a feel-good viral hit. It also illustrates one of the most important concepts underpinning the science of early childhood development, namely that parents’ interactions with their babies are crucial to their brain development, much of which happens before their fifth birthday.
Young children learn the foundations of important skills they will need later in life—including language—by gathering information from the world around them in what’s known as a “social-feedback loop.” One example of this loop in action is “serve-and-return” interactions. In these types of exchanges, “an infant or child ‘serves’ to an adult, in the form of a gaze, a sound, or a question, and the adult returns the serve with an affectionate and engaging gaze, a coo, or a caring response to that question,” writes Quartz’s Jenny Anderson. The video below illustrates some ways to do this:
Whether you’re discussing TV dramas or singing a lullaby, serve-and-return is one crucial way parents can contribute to their child’s language development. They can talk to them in ways that allow for pauses in the conversation, tone moderation, and back-and-forth interactions—which is exactly what DJ Pryor does in his video. He asks his son questions like: “Did you understand it?” or “They need to work on that, right?” and gives him time to respond, effectively practicing conversation and helping him develop communication skills.
“We love this video because it IS serve-and-return in action,” said Al Race, deputy director of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, in an email. It demonstrates “that everyday activities, just hanging out together, can be opportunities for this kind of back-and-forth, brain-building interaction. When both caregiver and child are having that much fun, it’s infectious.”
Read more from our series on Rewiring Childhood. This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The author’s views are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.