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.