What TV Gets Wrong About Smart Kids (and Adults)

What TV Gets Wrong About Smart Kids (and Adults)

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.

Alex and Manny's Garage Sale on Modern FamilyImage: 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.

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