I Watched the Parenting on Young Sheldon . . . and Did the Exact Opposite

A New York mother of three took a cue from the sitcom for how not to parent a gifted child
Family of five in a park
The author and her family in Central Park

The Big Bang Theory premiered September 2007. My husband has a nuclear engineering degree from MIT. Our younger son, then four, was a budding scientist. (Sample conversation: Him: Can’t come out of the bath. Working on surface tension and light refraction. Me: You mean splashing?)

We tuned in to the pilot. We liked it well enough to keep watching. However, as inevitably happens with Chuck Lorre shows, the humor quickly became mean-spirited, the characters nasty, the plots cliched.

When Young Sheldon debuted 10 years later, though, it seemed different enough in spirit that we gave it a shot.

By that time, we had a 14-year-old son who’d been begging us to let him drop out of school since 3rd grade. He said he was bored. He said he wasn’t learning anything. He said he could do a better job educating himself.

We struck a deal. He would stay in school, behave himself in class, and, once he graduated 8th grade, he could go straight to college.

There were definitely ups and downs over the intervening five years. Instances like his teacher calling to report he got an uncharacteristic D on a geography test. “I don’t think it’s a learning issue,” the teacher began.

“Oh, it’s a learning issue,” I snapped. “He didn’t learn the material.”

My son informed me he didn’t study for the test because he found geography pointless. I informed him that this wasn’t keeping with our bargain.

There were also report cards with the note: His need to question everything the teacher says can become tiresome.

A sample exchange:

Teacher: Think of “is” as an equal sign.

Him: No. Because if you say, “A rose is red,” then the color red is an aspect of the rose, but if you say, “Red is a rose,” a rose is not an aspect of the color red.

He managed to graduate 8th grade. He’d kept his promise. I was determined to keep mine.

We agreed one of New York’s city colleges would be fine. But, as it turned out, CUNY won’t let applicants take its placement test without a high school diploma. Over 50 percent of teens who graduate NYC high schools with a diploma can’t pass the CUNY placement test—but passing the placement test won’t get you a high school diploma!

With the plan for him to attend an affordable school and live at home proving impossible, we adjusted our parameters and visited Simon’s Rock, an early college in Massachusetts. Though it was by no stretch of the imagination affordable, it claimed to meet all financial need via scholarships.

To make the day trip happen, my husband and I took off work. Because neither of us drive, my brother volunteered to chauffeur us, which required him taking time off work, too. I arranged for my daughter to go to a friend’s house after school and for my oldest son to pick her up from there in the evening.

While none of us were impressed with Simon’s Rock’s academics, we still allowed our son to apply. He was ecstatic to get in. Then came the price tag. They wanted four times what we were paying for our oldest to attend an Ivy League university. So much for “meeting all financial need.”

My son was devastated. He was furious. He was belligerent.

Seeing him so upset, I was severely tempted to find some way for him to go. We’d borrow the money.

This is where Young Sheldon came in. That show’s narrative never matched The Big Bang Theory’s. Adult Sheldon maintained no one in his family understood his genius or supported him.

Yet, in seven seasons of the spin-off, we watched Sheldon’s mother, father, and grandmother go out of their way to drive him to his university classes. His dad flew with him to Caltech. His mom went with him to Germany. Sheldon was incredibly supported by his family—which he never appreciated.

What stopped me from giving in to my son over early college was watching Mary perennially giving in to Sheldon—and the entitled, self-absorbed monster that turned him into. One who didn’t even notice the sacrifices other people were making for him, because he simply accepted it as his rightful due.

Still image from the sitcom Young Sheldon
As a mother, Mary Cooper (Zoe Perry) consistently gives in to the needs and demands of gifted son Sheldon (Iain Armitage), often at the expense of daughter Missy (Raegan Revord).

So we told our son he’d be attending Stuyvesant, NYC’s top public high school. At the end of freshman year, he asked again to be allowed to drop out.

We didn’t let him.

The reasons were, once again, connected to Young Sheldon. I didn’t want to give my son the sense he was better than the people around him. Stuyvesant is a school for NYC’s highest performing students. If it was good enough for them, it was good enough for him (and his father and his brother, too). The last thing I wanted was a boy who, like young Sheldon, thinks he’s smarter than everyone around him and that this gives him license to belittle them. A kid like that grows into an adult who mocks his friend for “only” having a master’s degree (even though said friend is also an astronaut) and dismisses entire areas of study, like geology, as not real science.

So my son returned for sophomore year. And then the pandemic hit. Now when he said he wasn’t learning anything and showed the level of work that was being asked of him, I was forced to agree.

So could he drop out and educate himself now?

Yes. But on one condition. Again, thanks to Young Sheldon.

I told my son he could drop out and homeschool himself. But he would do all the work himself. He would research homeschooling law himself, and file the paperwork himself, and select his classes himself, and arrange to take his Advanced Placement tests (and, later, his high school equivalency) himself. I would not lift a finger to help.

This was because, on Young Sheldon, I saw what happened when a mother put one child’s needs above all others.

I watched Missy explain that while her dad and older brother Georgie have football in common, and her mom and Meemaw are always “fussing over Sheldon,” Missy is left on her own. I seethed when, during a trip to Houston so Sheldon could debate math with a NASA scientist, Missy’s pleas to stop at an ostrich farm are ignored. And I was driven to tears as Missy’s cries for attention, to the point of running away from home, are dismissed and punished, while Sheldon’s horrible behavior is excused and even rewarded.

That wasn’t going to happen at my house. Thanks to Young Sheldon, I went out of my way to make sure it wasn’t only my son’s triumphs which were celebrated. I insisted he attend his sister’s gymnastics meets and, when she competed internationally, that we watch the livestream of her opening ceremony. (Did we see her in the throng of thousands? No, we did not. But that wasn’t the point.) Her accomplishments were no less valuable than his.

Last month, Jonathan Plucker wrote about the sitcom “Young Sheldon Provides Insight into Parenting Bright Children.” I couldn’t agree more. But for me, the show proved a blueprint for everything not to do.

I didn’t want a son who acted like young Sheldon Cooper. I most certainly didn’t want one who grew up to behave like adult Sheldon. Even in the last episode, Jim Parsons’s cameo demonstrated that Sheldon still spoke condescendingly to his wife, had no interest in supporting his children’s passions, and mocked people whom he called his friends.

If looking at everything Mary Cooper did when raising Sheldon and doing the opposite was what it took for me to raise the anti-Sheldon, then so be it.

But how could I argue with Sheldon’s success, some might ask? He went to Caltech! Doesn’t that make putting up with his abhorrent personality worth it?

If that’s what we’re using as a metric, then my son also got into Caltech—but chose to go elsewhere. There’s definitely more than one way to parent a bright child. I chose to go the anti-Young Sheldon route.

Alina Adams is the author of Getting Into NYC Kindergarten and Getting Into NYC High School. Her website, NYCSchoolSecrets.com, asserts that we can’t have true school choice until everybody knows all their choices—and how to get them.

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