What TV Gets Wrong About Smart Kids (and Adults)

3 years ago

My oldest son goes to an NYC high-school that only accepts the top 2% of its 30,000 applicants. My middle son taught himself computer programming and is trying to prove his contrary theory that light is, in fact, not both a particle and a wave. And my youngest daughter completed the local library's summer-long reading challenge in the first week and accidentally wiped them out of all their prizes.

My kids are - there's no other way to put this - geeks.  Mega-geeks. Who don't watch much TV. Not that I have anything against TV. The fact that I write about it incessantly and am ashamed to say even got a Master's Degree in it proves that I think TV is the greatest thing in the history of ever. I also know the effect TV has on the developing brain, and so I limit my kids' screen-time.

Image: ABC

But, you know what I would really love? I would really love it if on those occasions when they do tune in, there was at least a smattering of programming available that didn't suggest being a smart, bookish kid is truly a fate worse than death, guaranteeing social isolation, the disdain of your peers and a loveless adulthood.  Intelligence also apparently causes asthma, adenoids, near-sightedness, acne, muscle weakness and obesity. (For those of us from a previous TV generation, see Urkel, Doogie, the entire Head of the Class, The Smart Guy and more.)

The Simpsons' Lisa has now spent 20+ years not being challenged academically, mercilessly teased by her popular (and proudly underachieving) brother and her classmates. Even her teacher, parents and principal find Lisa a little know-it-all and automatically dismiss whatever she has to say. On the other hand, a lot of Lisa's problems are of her own making. On every occasion when she's given the opportunity to attend a more challenging school, skip a grade or fraternize with equally intellectually gifted peers, Lisa panics and ends up begging to go back to "being a big fish in a small pond." This actually is a common problem with real-life gifted children. Because so much comes so easily to them for so long, they grow terrified of taking chances, possibly failing and being proven not as smart as everyone (but most importantly, they) believe. After two decades of whining about being surrounded by idiots, wouldn't it be nice if Lisa stopped blaming her isolation on everybody else and took a good, hard look at how she contributes to it?

Or she could take a lesson from her Sunday Night Animation Domination neighbor, The Family Guy's Stewie. He, too, is a child genius trapped in a family and town of dullards. But he, at least, constantly challenges himself by trying to kill his mother (here's a boy who isn't afraid of repeated failure!), building time-machines and conversing with the equally brilliant and misunderstood dog.

Modern Family offers a pair of examples of two different types of gifted children. Manny is wildly creative, romantic, an old man in a teen-age boys' body. His first few years on the show, the girls he was interested in failed to appreciate Manny's retro duds, the single roses he brought them or the poetry he wrote. Manny rarely let that get him down and, once they entered high-school, pal Luke was surprised to discover that Manny's mature charms were more appealing that Luke's stuck-in-middle-school-popularity antics. It's a cheerful message that eventually even the precocious grow into their personalities, and become appreciated for who they are.

On the other hand, Luke's older sister, Alex, is more the stereotypical high-school geek. She takes six AP classes, plays the cello, writes her college essay while on a family trip to Hawaii, and in a damaging stereotypical note, shares a fear of over-achieving Asian kids that's only equaled by NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Alex is also considered a condescending know-it-all, especially by her college drop-out sister, Hayley, who predicts for Alex a boyfriend-less, cat-filled future. She may be right, but is Alex's problem her intelligence or her attitude? Does she really expect to make friends if she is constantly explaining how much smarter she is than everyone else, such as during a museum visit with her uncles and Manny?

This is another perennial topic of discussion in the gifted community. Some say knowledgeable kids, especially those with a particular area of expertise, should be allowed to freely correct and lecture others, since this is the only area of their lives in which they can express control. Others believe that a high IQ isn't an excuse for rudeness. Don't tell people they're idiots (followed by a detailed explanation as to why), then pout when they don't want to keep hanging out with you. You'd think a smart girl would be, you know, smarter than that.

Gifted kids finding a peer group is the underlying theme to the Disney Channel's A.N.T. Farm. Here, Advanced Natural Talents are what get a handful of preteens promoted into a specialized program within a local high-school (which, despite being for high-achieving kids in San Francisco, somehow manages not to have any Asian students). The show gets bonus points for the lead gifted student being an African-American girl, who is also considered beautiful and popular. It then promptly loses them for the "dumb" kid in the regular program being her brother. It's supposed to funny because Black boys are stupid, which is most definitely not funny.

And while all the lead characters are, in fact, quite exceptionally gifted, be it in music, art, computer programming or the ability to retrieve random data thanks to an eidetic memory, that still doesn't explain how talent in music, the arts and/or programming qualifies you to take high-school level classes in English, math, science and history. (A problem also faced in Head of the Class. Would poet Simone really have been able to keep up in Arvid's Advanced Math and Physics classes - and vice versa?)

This assumption is yet another problem faced by kids in the real world, where a single IQ test taken at the age of four oftentimes places a child on the "gifted" academic track, without any regard for what their specific gifts are actually in. After all, a child who was precociously verbal in pre-school will surely have no problem doing algebra in sixth grade!

Finally, Child Genius Grown Up - But Still Weird and Awkward, is a genre prominent in The Big Bang Theory, with Criminal Minds' Dr. Spencer Reid and even Bones, herself, Temperance Brennan, carrying the banners on their respective shows. Though, arguably, TBBT guys do have friends - each other, and Dr. Brennan did get married last year.

It's fair to say that TV does a pretty thorough job of portraying the problems faced by gifted kids who grow into gifted adults. I just wish they gave equal time to the upside. The visceral, physical thrill that comes from making an academic breakthrough, the camaraderie and excitement of experiencing a true meeting of the minds, the all-encompassing passions gifted kids develop for particular subjects and the sense of purpose those interests can give. TV sees all those things as bugs, going so far as to assert that they keep kids from "having a life." I see them as features. What could be better than a life where you wake up every morning excited about its infinite possibilities?

That's why my favorite TV geek is The Big Bang Theory's Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz. This woman (no small thing when the stereotype tends to be dominated by men) defended a Ph.D in microbiology, earns more money than her husband but is, nevertheless, happily married, has girlfriends ranging from the painfully socially awkward and brilliant Amy to the ditzy, popular, ex-mean girl Penny, and a string of boyfriends constantly popping out of the woodwork to demonstrate that Bernie wasn't exactly lacking for male attention before Howard came along. Oh, and she's also sweet and nice, to boot. (We can infer that, unlike Lisa Simpson and Alex Dunphy, the intellectually gifted Bernadette is not perenially telling people they're dumber than her.)

That's my idea of the perfect role model! For my kids - and me.


Alina Adams


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