{GHF Blog Hop} That New Show About Kids Who Are “Geniuses”? Yeah, Let’s Talk About That

The new reality game show featuring gifted kids is problematic. Here's why  RedWhiteandGrew.com

Much like this toaster (above) that I found at Target, I’m capable of throwing shade. Rarely do I do so publicly, but today I’m gonna throw a little as part of the Gifted Homeschoolers’ Forum January 2015 blog hop: Gifted in Reel Life.

Please note that this shade is being directed solely at the adults who put what I’m about to describe together and air it every week. (To minimize the risk of the ‘stars” of this show being collateral damage in my criticism, I’m intentionally using neither their photographs, their names, nor am I giving the name of the show in the text of this post.)

There’s a new reality show about gifted kids. I haven’t seen it yet. Not an entire episode, anyway.

And I don’t plan to seek it on my cable lineup (or even online) because all I need to know about the producers’ approach to giftedness is summed up in these words: “Lifetime’s all-new competition series . . . centers on America’s most extraordinary and gifted children and their families as they prepare for a national intelligence competition.”

To motivate families to participate, there’s the promise of $100 grand in college money to the “winner,” suggesting that the new show is a search for an academic Honey Boo Boo. There’s a title on the line. (For what it’s worth, the producers’ credentials include one of the “Real Housewives” shows, “Apocalypse Preppers,” and “Cheerleader Nation.”)

I suppose, if pressed, the marketing team would want us to believe that this show will help America better understand gifted kids. Sadly, there’s no shred of nuance on the show’s website about “giftedness” ever being about anything other than “academic intelligence” measurable in a competitive environment with a timer.  I suppose that twice-exceptional kids–those whose academic potential is undermined by another diagnosis (ADD/ADHD, ASD, dyslexia, dysgraphic, OCD, etcetera) and who would struggle in such an environment–can stay marginalized in the public’s mind.

Maybe I will be proven wrong and somehow–much like the outstanding 1990s documentary Hands on a Hard Body revealed the human spirit’s invincibility through a car dealership’s bizarre competition for a truck–this new show will reveal something deep and meaningful.

Looking at the promo material, including video clips–one of which obviously capitalized on a major ethnic stereotypes to nudge the story along, I’m not seeing that turn around as likely.

Also, the much-hyped fact by the producers that the leading international, self-described “high IQ society”  is wrapped up in the production makes me think less of Mensa, frankly, and more of gifted-centered organizations that have steered clear of the show. (American Mensa got the idea from the UK. You’ll want to read this, too.)

So, to sum up, we’ve got:

  1. Glorification of giftedness as “genius” and marginalization of twice-exceptionality
  2. Pressure on preteens to perform like academic show ponies—no, academic gladiators—for fame, money, and a meaningless title
  3. Reinforcement and use of ethnic stereotypes (specifically an Asian-American Tiger Mom) and a tired trope to move the action along and create dramatic tension
  4. The endorsement of a major-league gifted organization to add “legitimacy” and reinforce all of the above as “acceptable” ways of presenting and treating gifted children (and people) in mainstream media

Tsk, tsk, tsk.

As a wise friend pointed out, this show is poised not to appear as a depiction of “reality” as an example of “exploitation.”

What do we know about about the target audience for this new show? What kind of people do the producers seek to draw?  If most viewers are typical reality show viewers, then we can probably guess:

“ . . . the attitude that best separated the regular viewers of reality television from everyone else is the desire for status. Fans of the shows are much more likely to agree with statements such as, “Prestige is important to me” and “I am impressed with designer clothes” than are other people. We have studied similar phenomena before and found that the desire for status is just a means to get attention. And more attention increases one’s sense of importance: We think we are important if others pay attention to us and unimportant if ignored.

Reality TV allows Americans to fantasize about gaining status through automatic fame. Ordinary people can watch the shows, see people like themselves and imagine that they too could become celebrities by being on television. It does not matter as much that the contestants often are shown in an unfavorable light; the fact that millions of Americans are paying attention means that the contestants are important.”

Yes, by all means, let’s use a televised competition between underage gifted people to feed a culture’s insatiable desire for attention and status. Let’s pit kids against one another and let the winner take the spoils in videos that will last forever.  While we are at it, let’s also make it easier for people to tease and bully gifted kids–a population vulnerable to bullying–by saying things like “if you’re so smart, why can’t you get on that Lifetime show and win some money?”


It’s depressing to me that this show made it on the air. But with the added endorsement by Mensa–as well as the full, regular participation of their official “Youth and Education Ambassador”?

Well, phooey.


To provide families with alternatives to this kind of narrow point of view, I’m working on a crowd-sourced list of media alternatives, including books, television, and film that depict giftedness and twice-exceptionality in more thoughtful, nuanced lights. You’re welcome to leave your suggestions in comments. For updates, you may want to subscribe to this site (see top right column) or follow me on social media: Twitter | Facebook | Pinterest .

Most importantly, don’t forget to check out the rest of this week’s media-themed GHF Blog Hop.

Gifted in REEL Life | A contribution by RedWhiteandGrew.com to the GHF Blog Hop January 2015



  1. I appreciate your advocacy for common-sense care and consideration of those with uncommon minds. I am convinced that this show hurts gifted and twice-exceptional kids. Grrrrr!

  2. Bravo! I am sickened by the entire premise of this show and will not be watching. I’m so glad you wrote this post.

  3. Well said, Pamela. I’ve never liked the emphasis on academic competitions that schools set up for gifted kids. I think the schools think that it serves them in some way but it doesn’t. The kids don’t get the real intellectual food that they need. Stereotypes just get reinforced and the kids feel pressure to prove that they’re smart. Ugh. I hope this post is widely read. (maybe Downton Abbey will notice it!)

    • I think there’s a place for academic competitions, if they’re done thoughtfully. There’s a very good program in Texas–University Interscholastic League (“UIL”)–but my experience of it in the 1980s was that the pressure was minimal and that collegiality was emphasized.

  4. The quote about people being obsessed with status to gain more attention to make them more important reminded me of the book “Extras” by Scott Westerfeld. It’s the last of the “Uglies” series, and it explores the idea of status and online attention being used as currency, and the be-all, end-all of society’s aim. Dystopian book, obviously. I love how that genre can so often accurately predict the human condition. Now if only more people would read and learn from it…

  5. I’m really glad you wrote this. I once heard an interview with the guy who is behind this show (and the others you mentioned), and was not impressed at all. Exploitation and twisted reality seem to be his passions. The kids in this program deserve so much more.

  6. ‘Scorpian’ show depicting giftedness in a wider range of presentations, some stereotypes but mostly relatable to gifted people & plenty of plot hole to keep gifted attentive. NT individuals would enjoy and maybe appreciate the life of GT people a little (the challenges as well as the ‘gifts’)

    • “Scorpion” is a family favorite here! The scripts are still a little weak–and there are some stereotypes in play, but on the whole we really enjoy it.

  7. Reality TV based on meaningless competition and gifted kids, a formula mixed in some ninth circle of hell…le sigh indeed. Thankyou for writing so sensitively about this Pamela.

    • You’re welcome, Kathleen. Thinking back, I was okay with that “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?” show because that was branded as “kid geniuses” but rather poked a little fun about how much we grownups forget but how much kids learn and cover. I’m sure a fair number of those kids were gifted (I only watched it a couple of times), but as they were integrated into the mix, the emphasis was on “playfulness” rather than “smartness.”

  8. I watched one episode of this show, and spent the rest of the evening in tears. I shudder to think how the children involved in this mess must feel.

    Interestingly, the only child in that episode to display any OEs that weren’t intellectual was eliminated from the get-go. I am sad to say this mess is more likely to do long-term damage (both to the competitors and gifted children as a whole) than it is to help in any way.

    Thank you for taking this on – and for showing these kids the sort of kindness and compassion that the org designed to represent them should… but isn’t.

    • Well, I suspect there are families participating rather enjoy it. The kids seem to have Twitter feeds, etcetera.

      Fame is a tempting thing in a culture that esteems it. But it’s usually short-lived and comes with a whole host of other issues that can warp a young person. And that’s sad to contemplate.

    • Those children are a small handful out of hundreds that were talented enough to be featured in the television series. They most likely feel super-awesome. If it makes you feel any better, those kids aren’t terribly dramatic, and the show will probably be relatively unpopular, here.

  9. To me the sad thing about reality TV shows and media articles in general is that so often they are edited to show the worst/most dramatic and may not be a truthful depiction of what was said and done.

  10. Love the article. You echo my sentiments exactly.
    —While we are at it, let’s also make it easier for people to tease and bully gifted kids–a population vulnerable to bullying–by saying things like “if you’re so smart, why can’t you get on that Lifetime show and win some money?”

    Lifetime’s show will be the benchmark standard for ignorance and intolerance.

    Let’s keep fighting the good fight.

  11. I did not realize I had heard of this show when a friend first mentioned it on Facebook. After reading a bit about the show and watching a few clips, I realized this was the show that had come up in a Mensa forum, on Facebook, as well as being a subject in the monthly Bulletin. American Mensa was tentative about getting involved in reality television, and polled us for our opinions. Clearly, enough popular support was garnered for AM to go ahead with it.

    The thing is, we do not exclude anyone on the basis of any particular diagnosis. Our membership includes a disproportionately large percentage of high functioning autistics, because our only requirement is a high IQ. We make no claim to have the market cornered on overall mental capacity, but value intelligence as it has traditionally been measured. Our only goal is to foster community between the highly intelligent, and as we are not a religious organization, that intelligence must be demonstrable. We cannot take it on faith.

    If you just really hate reality TV that exploits kids, I can understand that. I’m not a fan of reality television either. But Mensa has always offered grants and scholarships for gifted children, and the process has always been competitive. In this case, we have simply capitalized on a popular entertainment trend to produce more funding for those children. Perhaps we are dealing with the devil, here, but I think $100,000 for college is worth the risk.

    • As a matter of fact, I do object to reality television that exploits children across the board–and $100,000 per season is a drop in the bucket to what the network and producers will make it. It’s $100,000 for one child, too, and I’m willing to bet that kids who do that well on timed tests are going to do well on the kinds of college admissions testing that ensure hefty college scholarships and grants.

      Actually, if they’d matched $100,000 to a charity, say, that provides support to underprivileged folks, I might have more enthusiasm for the idea.

      How Mensa selects members, etcetera, is irrelevant. Moreover, excluding someone with OEs would be tricky to do because a diagnosis wouldn’t have to be revealed in order for a high IQ number to be shared.

      As for the poll, that’s great they asked their membership, but the presentation of the related question(s) matters greatly, as anyone who understands polling grasps.

      • Well, I can agree that reality television is awful, but these people are volunteers. They have a chance at earning $100,000 for college, and sure, that’s not a lot compared to what the network makes, but who cares? Valuing what you receive rather than coveting what others receive is a lesson I am strongly instilling in my children, and I hope the parents on the show will, too.

        And people who do well on timed tests have no better shot at hefty scholarships and grants than anyone else. There are very few that are based solely on testing. Most scholarships and grants have some kind of social or professional requirement, like being a woman, gay, a racial minority, publishing something in a specific field, or garnering a recommendation from some influential entity. As somebody who does great on timed tests and has paid for his college tuition out of pocket and federal financial aid, I assure you it’s not a significant advantage.

        Where do OEs come into this, by the way? Over-excitable children can still compete, right?

        • The students who attended UT Austin and LSU when I went and worked there who had the MOST money scholarships did the best on tests. The better the score, the greater the access. Most of those individuals were National Merit Scholars, too, which opens up a lot of doors. And, yes, there are lots of exceptions to the rules. There’s *always* exceptions to the rules, especially when one considers differences in choice of school ($5K goes further at a state school, for example, than an Ivy) or even major (an engineering student may find that she has access to more money, say, than an English major).

          The issue with OEs has nothing to do with whom is selected but everything to do with the format of the game show which would be hard for some kids to manage. If we (as a culture) only present giftedness as looking like kids who stand up and perform in a certain way, then we’re playing into the stereotype of a gifted, high-achiever. Mensa chose to go with a reality program that presents a narrow view. They chose not to leverage their reputation to go for something more nuanced and meaningful at a time when at least two documentaries–one on Bridges in LA and “Rise”–are coming out this year to present broader perspectives on the notion and experience of “giftedness.” The difference is striking, if for no other reason than no competition–no push for dominating another using an arbitrary set of canned facts–is demonstrated. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5zie2ucW6c

          Mensa has tied their brand to a narrow presentation of what giftedness is. That is their choice, but it is one that I profoundly disagree with as outlined above.

          As for the $100 grand, my response was to your bringing it up. That’s not the worst issue here, frankly. And it’s not a point that a care to belabor because obviously how generous that amount is really a matter of personal perspective. That’s just a blind alley.

          ETA: Turns out I am going to make a point about $100 grand after all. “According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2013–2014 school year was $30,094 at private colleges, $8,893 for state residents at public colleges, and $22,203 for out-of-state residents attending public universities.” Source: http://www.collegedata.com/cs/content/content_payarticle_tmpl.jhtml?articleId=10064

          At the minimum, they could have figured on 4-year education at an elite university costing the winner $120K (without adjusting for inflation when these kids reach college age). If the winner opted to go to a less costly school, he or she would have extra money for grad school or living expenses.

          $100K is an arbitrary number the producers selected because it sounds good and is easy on their own bottomline. It’s just one more example in a string of ill-conceived decisions based on making money off the backs of kids and Mensa’s brand.

          • I want to add that I am hearing anecdotally of Mensa leaders at the local level sharing some of the very frustrations outlined here and elsewhere. Therefore, I want to reiterate that when I reference the organization, I am speaking specifically to American Mensa’s national leaders who made the final decision on this sponsorship. There seems to be much difference of opinion within the rank, much of the resistance to this project coming from members who either have children or work with children.

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