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Character vs. Intelligence

Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of th...Image via Wikipedia

All of us want brilliant kids. We all obsess when our kids are two and they're not counting yet. We worry about when they will say their first word. We want to know that we have geniuses for offspring.

But is genius really all it's cracked up to be? I read an interesting article quoting William Katz on Power Line blog recently, which said this:

Now, let me ask you a question: You've all read about the great men and women of history. Do you recall ever reading that a major historical figure was "bright"? Of course not. No one would even think of describing anyone of significance that way. The issue is not whether someone is "bright." The issue is whether that person is competent and wise.

And yet, brightness has become its own virtue. We're impressed by candidates who appear "bright." I think this reflects the fact that this is the age of the college graduate, the age where "brightness," or the suggestion of intellect, is considered a fundamental requirement for even getting up in the morning. In order to be taken seriously, one must show the kind of mental agility popular with college admissions officers.

No one debated whether Lincoln was "bright," or Washington, or Franklin Roosevelt. And yet, in modern times, some pundits anguished over whether Ronald Reagan was "bright enough" to be president. They'd learned nothing from Harry Truman, who'd never graced a college campus.

That is so true! What matters in history is not one's IQ or one's SAT score; it's what one has actually DONE with one's life.

We live in an era which prizes right thoughts over right actions. If people FEEL the right way about an issue, they are praised in public, even if they don't do anything about it. So thinking the government should increase welfare payments, for instance, is considered more generous than actually helping at a soup kitchen, if you happen to also advocate reduced welfare payments.

One's political thoughts tend to be equated with intelligence and worth, rather than what one has done to make the world a better place or to accomplish something. We had the spectacle of Paul McCartney announcing at the White House last week that "at least now we have a President who has actually been in a library, unlike the last eight years". See, Obama is supposed to be "bright", and Bush is supposed to be "stupid". Leave aside the fact that Laura Bush was a librarian and that she made literacy a key part of W's administration.

I don't want to argue politics, and I'm sorry if I've wandered into there, but I do think that we have come to value someone's level of genius far more than we do accomplishment because the intellectual elite tends to praise people's thoughts more than people's actions. If you are for peace, you're praised, whether or not your actions bring you closer to peace. If you oppose poverty, you're praised, whether or not your policies or your actions help to eradicate poverty. It is not what we do; it is the posture we take. Hence, Clinton could be praised for being brilliant (and indeed, I believe his IQ is exceptionally high), even though he made major mistakes in office and had an affair with an intern.

What does this mean for us as parents? Let's stop taking pride in our children's intelligence and instead work towards building character. You can have all the intelligence in the world and use it for the wrong things. Stalin was smart. Hitler was smart. Mao was smart. Who cares? They are condemned to the ash heap of history, and sit condemned with God today.

It is very dangerous to praise innate gifts rather than efforts and achievements. Our gifts are ours by virtue of God's grace. It is what we do with them that determines our worth for the kingdom. If you have a gift and don't use it, you are worse off than one who does not have the gift at all. And many who have changed the world have done so not because they were brilliant, but because they saw injustice and wanted to do something about it.

Be careful how you praise your kids. Be careful how you worry or obsess over your children's school marks, or their timetables at reaching milestones. What counts is whether they have developed a compassionate heart and a willingness to work when it matters. Intelligence cannot be taught (though it can be nurtured). Motivation and compassion can be taught, and that is what we need to be working on.

I do not care how smart your child is, or how smart my children are. What I care about is this: do they have a heart which is turned towards God? And will they listen to God to do what He is calling them to do?

So let's develop leadership skills in our kids. Let's develop compassion, and a work ethic, and a love for God. These things ultimately matter far more than intelligence, and the child who has these things will go far indeed.


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At 8:37 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

This is a great reminder for those of us teaching highschoolers and feeling the pressure to have them learn everything instead of what's most important.


At 12:45 PM , Blogger Tina Hollenbeck said…

Amen, Sheila! This is brilliant. I'm going to share it on my Facebook; we all need the reminder...maybe especially those of us who homeschool and feel the pressure of "the world" on us (i.e., from people who don't believe we're capable of providing a good education). Thanks.


At 1:51 AM , Blogger Tessa said…

Makes me feel even better about the fact that my 2 year old doesn't say a lot of words or count or know his shapes or colors but he certainly knows that when another kid is hurting, they jsut might need a hug. He's the most empathetic little dude I know and it's wonderful :)
I love that I can work on his character instead of focusing on his intelligence. I think that going into homeschooling with this mindset means we're going to be a lot more successful.

(I also quoted an linked to this entry on my facebook. Hope that's alright.)


At 12:09 PM , Blogger Herding Grasshoppers said…

Amen, amen, and amen.



At 1:35 PM , Blogger Herding Grasshoppers said…

Linked to you from my blog.




At 6:00 PM , Blogger melanie said…

Came over to read at Julie's suggestion (Herding grasshoppers) -- Very much worth reading and remembering... and doing! ♥


At 6:03 PM , Blogger melanie said…

PS -- Linked you on FB :-)

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About Me

Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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