Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Seven-Year-Olds Don't Get Star Trek

Here are two random facts my son Nick knows: Mr. Spock has green blood. The guys in red shirts always die. When the new Star Trek movie came out this spring, and my husband and I saw it, Nick became more curious. I thought--hoped--our seven-year-old was ready to hop aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, at least with the far less violent, 1960s TV series.

I envisioned us watching all the episodes together, me professing about them in mini-ethics lessons: the value of loyalty, respect for differences, a can-do attitude. Nick is an adoptee, born in Vietnam, and I thought Trek's inclusive vision might add an extra spark. I'd reminisce about when I first saw those episodes as re-runs in the '70s. In my ninth-grade geometry class, I had wryly picked them apart with my fellow nerds.

Imagine my anticipation, then, a few weeks ago, when Nick and I watched his first, "The Trouble with Tribbles." In it, a space station and the Enterprise get inundated with furry little creatures. The story is played for laughs, with one goofy fight, but nothing scary for any child (like ours) who loves Jackie Chan.

Nick wasn't scared. He was bored. Within moments of the opening credits, he was squirming beside me on the couch, begging to watch something else.

It suddenly became clear to me that, developmentally, my seven-year-old isn't ready for the complex system of obligations and loyalties that animate Star Trek. He didn't get any of the relationships among the crew. He didn't get the friendship between Spock and Kirk. He didn't get the notion of competing space empires, or why Captain Kirk was so snappily pissed off at a petty bureaucrat.

While what I like may rub off on my son, it does so in ways I can't predict. Nick holds up his fingers in the Vulcan salute, giggling as he says, "Live long and what?" Then I play earnest parent, "casually" mentioning that Mr. Spock is half-human, half-Vulcan. Kind of like an international adoptee, huh? To date, Nick's response has been a shrug.

If he doesn't get the social complexity of Star Trek, it's unlikely he gets the convolutions of adoption, either. I think I've known this all along. But when a boy is an only child who's used to conversing with adults, sometimes even this hyper-intellectual mom forgets he's very young.

We've talked openly about his adoption since he was a baby, trying to normalize words like "orphanage" and "birth parents." Just the other day, he made up the following riddle:

Question: "What do you call a baby elephant?"

Answer: "An El-orphan."

But in assuming all babies are orphans, my son has got a whole world, maybe a whole universe, of coming to terms ahead of him.

By the time Mr. Spock's bicultural dilemma begins to resonate with Nick, he'll have his own ideas about morality and ethics. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's plaid-pants version may appeal to him; or maybe he'll like Star Trek: The Next Generation's New Age spin, with the android Data who just wants to be human.

Nick was drawing cartoon ninja figures when "The Trouble with Tribbles" finally ended. He still sat with me on the couch, though. He kept close, and I finished the last of my wine and stared at the infinite sky outside our living-room window.

I felt sad; I felt cleansed of delusion for a few seconds. I saw all the questions Nick will be asking about himself as he gets older, and the many versions of him materializing out of dust and light and our imaginations.

He's already boldly going elsewhere.


  1. They go elsewhere, then you are pleasantly surprised when they come back. When our son was studying trumpet in middle school, I pointed out a trumpet solo in a Bruce Springsteen song. I wanted to show him that the trumpet could add to the music in any genre. He shrugged (always the shrug!) turned up his nose and walked away. After all, Springsteen had nothing on the jazz greats he was listening to. Fast forward a few years to after he had started playing music professionally. He plugged his iPod into our car radio. What we heard were songs from Springsteen's then latest album, The Seeger Sessions. He loved the raw vibe, the way the musicians came together and produced something that was good musically, but not always perfect. Sometimes, they just gotta discover this stuff for themselves.
    But it is also true that they will go places in their life where you can't follow,you can't protect, and you can't always understand them way you'd like to. That is why what you are giving your seven-year-old today will help him boldy go elsewhere tomorrow.

  2. Martha,
    I read it and I loved it. We miss you...

  3. I've done that too; stretching a movie, program or story to make it analogous to adoption, only to be met with a shrug from my son.

    When Alex (now 13) was Nick's age, he loved Superman. I pointed out their similarities, but Alex would not acknowledge the adoption connection. It was with fellow adoptee Hercules that he most related.

    I agree with Judith above, who mentioned the payoff comes later. It's so validating when you hear your child parroting what you said to others or back to you.

    And sometimes you just can’t know what has drawn them in. Alex also resisted my attempts to have him watch Star Trek, but has recently discovered it for himself. I just asked him which series he liked best. He has most recently been watching the episodes with Patrick Stewart so I expected Next Generation to be his response, but he went with "the ones from the sixties with Kirk". He also mentioned that Spock is his favorite character. Why? Alex is Eurasian. Is it the shared foot in two cultures background that you casually mentioned to Nick? When pressed, Alex will only say, "Because Spock is cool."

    Great post Martha. Keep up the good work.

  4. When Nick was really into superheroes a few years back, he got the Superman-adoption connection. It worked for him, and we talked about Superman's "Krypton parents" and his "Earth parents."

    He's often been drawn to the adoption stories of superheroes. Maybe the connection arose more naturally, because so many of these characters have adoptive or foster parents. Maybe Nick was just younger and not so wary when I put on my earnest conversational tone. I do know that my son feels left out when he doesn't get adult jokes and ideas, which may be part of the problem with Trek at the moment.

  5. I've fallen flat more times than I can count on my efforts to insert a teachable moment into a show/song from my youth. One problem: movies and shows from the 70s are often too slow-paced, or technologically unimpressive, or something. Cool Hand Luke, for instance, was way too slow and long for my teenage daughter, dashing my hopes of discussing rebellion, individualism, decision-making, etc.

    The first Rocky movie always works.

    I love the joke Nick came up with.

    FYI, the biggest question I had as a teenager watching Star Trek was why on Earth Kirk got all the girls.

  6. Yeah, Kirk and girls. A real mystery. That's what I mean about that plaid-pants vision--Kirk was like some geek's version of a stud. From the teen girl angle, he was *so* not foxy.

    The real absurdity about Nick learning certain Trek rules like "the guys in red shirts always die," is that when he saw that episode, there's Scotty in a red shirt. "Is he going to die?" was the first thing out of Nick's mouth. Rukes are rules, you know, especially if you're seven years old.

  7. Congratulations on your new site, Martha! My only comment is that I am having a tough time reconciling how and why my 6 year old nephew, (who is insanely enamored of Disney and their videos), went to their web site and printed out their company prospective – yes the full financial. After stapling the document together, it found in his bedroom near other favorite things. Mike.

  8. Know this is late but I just read "Clark Kent, Adoptee" and then saw this post from a friend, U.S. born, who teaches Chinese and is married to a man from China. She posted it friends-only so Im going to extract the husband's name:

    My 7th grade class is about 50% 12 year old girls who were adopted from China into American families. This week they all had to get Chinese names. I gave them all names based on their English names and personalities, but told them that if they had access to their original names, and wanted to use them, that was great. Yesterday a lot of them brought in their adoption papers. I had to copy the characters down and ask [my husband] last night to decode them (they were in traditional script). It ends up one of the girls is named "庆归" which means "celebrated return", as in "we would celebrate if you returned." It's about as close as a Chinese name can get to meaning "please come back to us". [My husband] freaked out when he saw the name, and was swearing at the Chinese parents in his head and making up stories about why they would name her that all last night. I'm not sure how to tell the girl what her name means, and I know she will ask. I had a girl in class yesterday cry when I told her what he birth name sounded like and what it meant. This is emotional stuff.

  9. Wow, Joan, what a story. This is very emotional stuff, and the language barrier (not to mention the cultural barrier) is one of many reasons why adoptive parents are often unable to explain what happened to their children. And from the kids' perspective, knowing the details is what matters.