Fun Fact: Young Sheldon Provides Insight into Parenting Bright Children

Ending its run on CBS, the heartwarming family sitcom gave a window into gifted education
Iain Armitage portrayed young Sheldon Cooper for seven seasons, a role originally popularized by Jim Parsons on the sitcom The Big Bang Theory (2007–19).
Iain Armitage portrayed young Sheldon Cooper for seven seasons, a role originally popularized by Jim Parsons on the sitcom The Big Bang Theory (2007–19).

The best part about writing an essay on the TV series Young Sheldon was that it gave me the excuse to say “I’m working!” whenever anyone walked into the family room. It’s a dream assignment for an academic who is also a huge pop-culture junkie. “Bazinga” indeed!

However, the worst part was that the show ran for seven seasons and 141 episodes when the finale aired on May 16, a longevity of which I was blissfully unaware when accepting the invitation. That made for a lot of streaming over the past couple months, about 65 hours’ worth. (To prove I watched them all: Roadhouse, “He has a learner’s permit and his own phone line,” Joy of Painting, “Wow, this 27-inch TV is huge,” 90210). Our Young Sheldon would never have made such a miscalculation.

The Boy Genius

The main character is Sheldon Cooper, a character first introduced during the sitcom The Big Bang Theory (2007–19). As an adult, Sheldon is a theoretical physicist at Caltech. The actor Jim Parsons plays Sheldon on TBBT and narrates Young Sheldon (often unreliably). Iain Armitage plays the younger Sheldon.

As an adult, Sheldon often mockingly jokes about his family’s (and everyone else’s) lack of intellect. But TBBT ends with him expressing genuine appreciation for his family and friends’ support. Young Sheldon attempts to present how that appreciation developed.

The show takes us back to his childhood in the small town of Medford in East Texas, a few hours outside of Dallas. Sheldon lives with his dad, George, a high school football coach; his mom, Mary, a homemaker who initially works part-time at her church; Georgie, Sheldon’s older brother; and Missy, Sheldon’s twin sister. Sheldon’s maternal grandmother, Meemaw (played masterfully by Annie Potts), lives a couple houses down the street.

As the series opens in 1989, Sheldon is starting high school as a nine-year-old, which is awkward for Georgie, who is also starting 9th grade. Over the course of the series, Sheldon graduates early from high school, graduates early from a local university, and by the end is about to depart for graduate school at the age of 14.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the popularity of both shows, which were among the 10 highest-rated programs for most of their combined 19 seasons. It’s not hard to see why: sharp writing, good character development, first-rate acting, and clever use of celebrity cameos and featured players all make for a fun viewing experience. The major themes are also highly relatable, ranging from family dynamics and friendships to the tensions between science and religion and between academics and athletics.

I had not been a regular viewer of Young Sheldon or The Big Bang Theory. I enjoyed TBBT but only dipped in and out during its last seasons. I surely missed lots of inside jokes that regular viewers of both shows appreciated. And although I have pages and pages of notes, I will stick to my assigned task: exploring whether Young Sheldon accurately portrays the issues faced by advanced students and their families.

What the Show Gets Right

Young Sheldon captures many of the characteristics and experiences of highly advanced children. Sheldon has very high expectations for his academic performance and struggles with failure (getting a “poor grade,” a spectacularly unsuccessful college project, ignoring sage advice from his professors on applying to summer programs). He tends to be full of himself and doesn’t react well to perceived slights. He abhors group work (as do his college classmates!), and he goes out of his way to avoid boredom. He is more than a little obsessive-compulsive. Sheldon loves his family, if often struggling to show it. His frenemy Paige, another young genius, rebels against the high expectations of others, struggles with her parents’ divorce, and admits to pretending not to be smart in order to be more popular. These are not atypical traits of many smart people—among both children and adults!

I loved that the writers resisted pathologizing Sheldon’s weirdness. Other shows with genius characters tend to succumb to the temptation to depict them as being on the spectrum or having debilitating personality disorders. But that is not Sheldon Lee Cooper. Sure, he is odd and different, but how could someone highly intelligent not appear weird to most other people? I’m reminded of a reception at an academic conference where I noticed a friend standing off by himself. I asked if he was OK. He replied that he was doing great, noting with a sweep of his hand, “It’s great to be in a room where I’m not the quirkiest person.”

A good example of how the writers treat his weirdness is an exchange with Mr. Lundy, the drama teacher. Sheldon declares a passion for acting, despite never having attempted it. The teacher says, “Well, I like that confidence,” to which Sheldon replies, “Thanks, most people find it off-putting.”

That exchange takes on added importance when it becomes clear that Sheldon actually is a good singer and dancer, requiring little practice. But as he prepares to star in the school musical, his anxiety prevents him from taking the stage. That doesn’t make him a freak; it makes him human. He knows what he’s like and how people view him. He just doesn’t care most of the time. Mr. Lundy observes, “You’re an odd little boy, but you make it work” (S1, Ep16). It’s worth noting that Sheldon reacts by nodding in appreciation.

Over time Sheldon becomes humbler in different contexts and gradually more self-aware. He’s helped along by his family, like when Meemaw notes, “It’s great to have knowledge, but you don’t have to show it off all the time” (S4, Ep2). In those situations, Sheldon is mildly taken aback but tends to learn from them. Especially in later seasons, he is often shown to be adaptable, shivering in revulsion during—but tolerating—situations that would have made him flee screaming (literally!) at the beginning of the series. The older Sheldon cares more and adjusts to each person’s expectations—not always successfully, but he makes the effort.

One of my favorite scenes in the series is when he asks one of his professors, the perpetually annoyed Dr. Linkletter, to help him understand sarcasm (S6, Ep15). It plays like a modern version of “Who’s on first?”, with Sheldon struggling to figure out which comments are sincere and which are sarcastic. (Everything Dr. Linkletter says is dripping with sarcasm.) Sheldon gets that sarcasm exists, he knows he struggles to pick up on it, and he tries to learn how to be sarcastic. He’s just not good at it. And that’s OK! We all have our struggles, and I enjoyed seeing the portrayal of a super-smart child that resists making him into either a superhero or super-weirdo.

One Thing That Didn’t Work . . . and One that Hit Close to Home

One unrealistic development was the school district’s willingness to accelerate Sheldon from elementary school to high school, then to let him graduate early to enter college. Such grade skipping is a radical, if sometimes necessary, intervention. I liked how the decisions at various points reflected reasonable parent concerns (Is he emotionally ready for this? Are we?). But let’s be frank: How many districts are willing to entertain such big steps and to openly facilitate them? Very few, in my experience.

The show actually reinforces this point throughout its run. In each season, there is at least one situation in which Sheldon’s parents wrestle with a major decision about their son’s future. The entire first season is about whether Sheldon can adjust to high school as a nine-year-old, with Mary especially concerned about him making friends and being safe. The family struggles with the decision to graduate high school early, start college early, and go overseas for a summer physics program. In real life, the lack of public-school or low-cost services for advanced students forces families to make difficult decisions with little preparation and few resources. If Sheldon’s K–12 educators had not been so oddly willing to radically accelerate him, the family’s education struggles would have been even more severe. Why do we make advanced education so hard for American families?

An aspect of Sheldon’s schooling that feels very accurate is the reaction of his high school teachers to both his presence and early departure for college. The teachers’ feelings are exaggerated and played for laughs—and Sheldon’s behavior toward them is highly offensive—but those scenes didn’t sit well with me. When I was an elementary school teacher, we had a couple extremely smart students, and the comments in the teachers’ lounge about them were often mocking and lacking in empathy. The students were not that weird; compared to Sheldon and Paige, they were quite normal! But they were just different enough—and just smart enough—that sometimes they were treated like aliens. The exasperated attitude of Sheldon’s teachers (both in high school and at college!) was a sharp reminder that most educators have little to no training in advanced education or the needs of advanced students. This lack of preparation often leads to confusion and miscommunication among educators, students, and parents. Why do we make advanced education so hard for American educators?

At its heart, Young Sheldon was a show about the Cooper family: Missy (Raegan Revord), Mary (Zoe Perry), George (Lance Barber), Sheldon (Iain Armitage), Meemaw (Annie Potts), Georgie (Montana Jordan), and Mandy (Emily Osment).
At its heart, Young Sheldon was a show about the Cooper family: Missy (Raegan Revord), Mary (Zoe Perry), George (Lance Barber), Sheldon (Iain Armitage), Meemaw (Annie Potts), Georgie (Montana Jordan), and Mandy (Emily Osment).

Hot Take: The Show Should Be Called The Cooper Family

In full disclosure, I didn’t like the show initially. Working through the first few episodes, the repetitive plots and stereotypical characters felt like caricatures. A lot of the “insights” in those early episodes started to feel like “laugh at the nerd” or “pity the awkward genius” tropes that make it hard for me to sit through other shows with very smart characters.

But something changes in the middle of that first season. The focus shifts from the travails of an annoying genius to the adventures of a family with lots of quirky members, one of whom happens to be quite smart. That’s when the series starts to click and become both multidimensional and more entertaining.

Parenting a highly precocious child is rarely easy, and the show does a good job noting the many frustrations faced by the children themselves, their parents, their siblings, their educators, and even members of their community (like Pastor Jeff). Sibling jealousy! Protecting your child from being exploited! The sacrifices a family makes for the benefit of one child! These are all common concerns in families with advanced students.

With the shift to family dynamics, fully realized by the middle of season four, the standard sitcom formula (this thing happens, and here’s how people react) becomes more complex. Scenarios still occasionally center on Sheldon, but plot lines increasingly address how Sheldon reacts to the problems of others. That is, it becomes a fuller portrait of how families actually work. Missy’s teenage struggles bother Sheldon, and he and the other family members struggle to be supportive. His parents’ relationship issues bug him and his siblings, but they can’t figure out how to react, or if they should react at all. Sheldon’s superior intelligence does not give him special insights into these common problems because he has never experienced them before. That feels accurate to me, too.

Not that Sheldon’s parents always get it right. They often hold him to lower standards than he holds for himself. An early attempt to send him to a boarding school for advanced students falls apart far too soon, yet he shows that he can handle attending college. He has opportunities to attend Caltech and other top-tier universities on free rides, yet his parents prefer that he study at the fictional East Texas Tech. In part because they don’t understand his abilities, and in part because they overestimate his social and emotional fragility, they make several important decisions that are rather ill-advised. As a parent of bright children, this resonates. The academic in me always advises people to “let them fly!” while the parent in me is thinking, “but not too far, too fast!” This essential tension is depicted with compassion throughout the series.

In the End, It’s All about Wisdom

Much of the show can be summarized by this comment about Sheldon in Season 2: “How can he be so smart and so clueless at the same time?” This is a common observation about highly talented children, and it reflects the difference between intelligence and wisdom. A child may be intellectually brilliant, but their lack of experience often slaps them on the head as they barrel through life.

From a psychological perspective, this is to be expected. Parents have decades of hard-earned wisdom that children simply do not have. As the series progresses, Sheldon’s family, friends, and mentors help him gain the context and experiences that gradually make one wise. They also do it for Georgie and Missy—and Meemaw often does it for George and Mary—which makes sense.

I am going to miss the Cooper family, and not just because I spent nearly every day with them over the past two months. Young Sheldon provides an accurate depiction of the struggles of a bright child and the family dynamics that impact and are impacted by that child. It also reminds us that a key goal of parenting and families is to help each other become wiser about interacting with the world. It’s hard to imagine a television show that depicts this more accurately, and with such heart.

Jonathan Plucker is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education and a past-president of the National Association for Gifted Children. He appreciates the feedback of Amalia Pompe, Kathleen Plucker, and the editors on an earlier version of this essay.

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