Please Watch 'Young Sheldon' For My Son's Sake...
I never really got into The Big Bang Theory, so when I heard there was going to be a spin-off, I didn’t think much of it, until I heard the concept.
In case you aren’t familiar with it, The Big Bang Theory follows the lives of best friends and roommates Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter, both physicists at Caltech, and their next-door neighbor, a waitress/aspiring actress named Penny. Über-nerds fraternize with hot blonde. Hilarity ensues.
A lot has happened to these characters in the past 11 seasons from what I gather. Sheldon‘s past has come up here and there causing curiosity about his formative years. Enter Young Sheldon.
Young Sheldon follows the childhood experiences of Sheldon Cooper before he became the theoretical physicist audiences know and love. The show takes us back to when Sheldon was just 9 years old and just about to embark on a new adventure: high school. A child prodigy with genius-level IQ, he lives in Southeast Texas with his completely ordinary parents and two absolutely average siblings. Presumably, hilarity will ensue.
When I first watched the preview for Young Sheldon, I could barely hold back the tears. I know. Isn’t this supposed to be a comedy?! Though I’m sure their intent is to make audiences laugh, and perhaps only occasionally cry, I could barely get through the trailer without bursting into tears. It just hit so close to home.
You see, I happen to have a little boy who is a lot like Sheldon. He’s 6, not 9. He isn’t starting high school yet (praise Jesus), and I’m certain his IQ is not quite as high as Young Sheldon‘s, but they have a lot in common, just the same.
My son doesn’t play with trains or trucks or sports equipment the way other kids usually do, unless (like Sheldon) he can find some sort of scientific correlation. He has quirks and eccentricities all his own that drive me banana crackers (much like Sheldon‘s germaphobia does for his dad). He’s also blissfully unaware of how his intelligence might make him the target of other people’s cruelty, or perhaps worse, leave him feeling incredibly lonely and misunderstood.
(Cue the waterworks.)
While watching the scene when Mary Cooper prays over her boy in the car as she drives him to his first day of high school at age 9, I completely lost it. That moment right there sums up all the heartbreaking situation moms like Mary (and me) face. If we choose to honor our kids’ interests and abilities, we are also placing them in environments not suited for children of their age. But if we don’t challenge and encourage their intellectual pursuits, we are in essence telling them everything about what they love and enjoy is wrong, that their very nature is wrong and weird. So you just move forward, make the best choice possible, and find yourself driving a 9-year-old to his first day of ninth grade, praying he doesn’t get shoved into a gym bag.
This is why I hope and pray people watch Young Sheldon and that the show delivers on its potential, not only to entertain its audience but also to provide a window into the lives of kids like mine.
Mary is an average woman, a loving mom, a devoted churchgoer. She has three beautiful children whom she is raising in the same home with the same love, birthed from the same body. Yet one of them is just different. I doubt Mary Cooper is the kind of mom who tried to “produce a genius.” She doesn’t strike me as the sort of woman who ate a specific diet to optimize the developing brain. She doesn’t seem like the type to push her children academically to make sure they attend high school by age 9. No, Mary is a perfectly ordinary woman, doing her best with the kids God gave her, and trying to keep up with one that is beyond anything she could ever have anticipated.
Basically, I’m Mary.
When she prays over her son on the way to high school, I cry because I prayed a similar prayer over mine on the way to kindergarten. “Please, Lord, let his peers be kind. Don’t let him be ostracized or bullied. Don’t let them treat him like a weirdo.”
When Sheldon says inappropriate things in class, I feel this deeply. My son has done the same in his own way. When the teachers gather to complain about him to the principle, I cringe because this is my worst nightmare, yet an absolute possibility for moms like me with kids like him.
The truth is, our educational system just doesn’t know what to do with these kids. Not every teacher or principal is on board with accelerated curriculum or skipping grades or alternative methods of keeping these kids engaged. Not every educator even sees the need for providing something for these children, and I get it. There just isn’t funding for “gifted” programming, and how can you provide staff or curriculum or anything really with no money to pay for it? And besides, even if funding were available, why pour money into kids who aren’t struggling? These children are obviously doing fine in school, more than fine. What’s the worst thing that could happen to a kid who is smarter than everyone in his class?
Part of the problem is in the label: “gifted.” I mean, every parent wants to think their child is “gifted,” right? It feels good to have your kid be at the top of the class, to win the spelling bee, to blow everyone away at the science fair, to be the valedictorian of their senior class. But that’s not Sheldon Cooper, and that’s not my son.
The smartest kid in their class is going to get straight-As and graduate top of his or her class. The smartest kid in the school district is either going to be the super lonely 9-year-old in ninth grade or the clinically depressed 9-year-old stuck in fourth grade.
People generally know what to do with the kid who is the best in his class, but no one really knows what to do about the kid working two or more grade-levels ahead of everyone his age. No one, including his parents, knows what to do about a young child who talks about human reproduction like it’s NBD because he’s been reading anatomy books since he was 4, and this is just science, people. No one, especially his mom, knows what to do with a little boy who doesn’t want to play outside pretty much ever. I mean, is it worth it to rip the organic chemistry book out of his hand and make him sob as I shove him out the door every single day? Is that really “healthier” for him? Or would it be better to show him I love and accept him just the way he is and leave outdoor activities for another day (or another kid)?
That is what I hope people take away from this show, and that’s what I hope the show delivers on this season: the complexity of raising profoundly gifted children in a world that just doesn’t get it.
Our society prizes academic achievement. Far too highly, I might add. It’s hard for most people to conceive that there is a level of intellect that is desperately lonely and not enviable in the least. You see, we know the ending for Sheldon Cooper because Chuck Lorre and CBS has already written it. Sheldon grows up and finds his people, buddies at Caltech, a girlfriend, a life surrounded by those who understand him, match him intellectually, and love him despite his intellect and idiosyncrasies. He doesn’t live out the rest of his days misunderstood and alone in his hometown. But my son might.
When you are raising a child with a 1 in a million or even 1 in 10,000 brain (see this very helpful chart from Hoagie’s Gifted Education Page on the prevalence of various IQ ranges), the likelihood of them finding a similar mind to connect with is incredibly small. The likelihood of you finding another parent with a similar kid seems impossible.
My heart breaks for Mary Cooper, trying to raise her son with no similar kids in her community and no parents of similar kids in her circle of friends. I can tell from the clips I’ve seen so far that the community’s lack of understanding will most likely be a central theme. And why not? It’s pretty hilarious to see that church lady turn around and ask “What’s wrong with him?” Unless you’re Sheldon or Mary Cooper, then that’s a very lonely place to live.
I’m really looking forward to Young Sheldon‘s debut next week (Monday, September 25, 8:30/7:30c). The cast seems really talented; Iain Armitage is adorable, and of course, the story will most definitely resonate with moms like me. But my greater hope is that other people will watch. I hope other parents with kids not like mine will gain some understanding, and see that extremely high academic achievement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. People will see that parents like me with kids like these aren’t bragging; we’re just barely keeping up. I hope educators and legislators will see the need for better options for these kids, that these exceptional minds can either be nurtured or squandered. It’s up to us. And maybe, just maybe, if all these people watch this show and spread the word, my little man will find people who actually get him, and never ever get shoved in a gym bag.