I’ve been thinking about the connection between the way children learn and what we’ve been doing with the Kid. Children learn by moving–by doing things–and Kid spends a lot of time doing things. She plays outside, she climbs trees, she makes things, she experiments, she cooks, she swims, she goes to camp and Montessori school. All of that is essential to child development and learning, and I can’t overstate its importance.

But for the last year or so, we’ve been watching sci-fi and fantasy shows with the Kid, and that’s connected to the same kind of learning.

We have mirror neurons in our brains that allow us to also learn by watching others. We can watch someone else do something and experience that thing (on a brain level) almost as if we did that thing ourselves. That’s why humans have empathy, and it’s why we enjoy watching movies and TV. We can watch the story on the screen and our mirror neurons allow us to interact with the story as if it were happening to us. 

So when we watch a story that involves a story the Kid can relate to, we can then discuss that story in a way that allows the Kid to learn from it. And we can use those examples as touchstones for future discussions. For emotional issues or issues of bad behavior, it’s actually easier to discuss a fictional example than something from the Kid’s real life, because we can all pretend we’re talking about the show and not her, so Kid doesn’t get defensive. And of course some things are dangerous to try, so we hope that the Kid will learn from a fictional example not to try that herself.

Star Trek (and all its versions) is great for discussing emotions, because Roddenberry tended to separate emotions into different species–Ferengi are greedy, Klingons are angry, Betazoids are sensitive, and so on. So discussing relationships among species can help a kid talk about feelings in different ways.

Once Upon a Time is great for discussing relationships and misunderstandings, because that’s what fairy tales are all about. 

Buffy: The Vampire Slayer is useful for discussing friendship as well as right and wrong, the fact that there are bad people in the world, and how to get out of dangerous situations. For this, the fantasy aspect of the show is really useful, because we can discuss self-defense with purely fictional “bad-guys,” which is way less overwhelming (and way more comfortable for us) than discussing real problems that come up in high school, like date rape. We will discuss these issues in more detail when the Kid is older, but things like sex, drugs and date rape are not one-time conversations, and we are laying the ground work for these conversations now by discussing Buffy’s relationship with Angel or what’s the best way to get out of a locked dungeon.

I’m not saying it’s a good idea for kids to sit around watching TV all day. But watching sci-fi and fantasy television has been a great activity for us to do as a family.