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    Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    More Important Than Intelligence (Charlotte Mason and Gifted Kids)

    November 24, 2017 by Brandy Vencel

    Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.
    -Albert Einstein

    I cannot tell you how many times I have written and rewritten this post. The education of gifted children (meaning children with IQ’s at least two standard deviations above the mean) can be a controversial subject. There are a lot of strong opinions out there, and while I want to open doorways to expanded ways of thinking, rather than burn bridges, it’s difficult because what I want to say cuts against the grain of much contemporary advice.

    Let’s begin with a couple caveats, then.

    1. This is not all that can be said about educating the gifted. This isn’t even all I have to say about it. You can read my previous post here, and I plan to write more in the future.
    2. This is not a how-to post. My mantra is always Philosophy First! I believe that right methods proceed from right principles. I may or may not get into the practical. The practical can be a dangerous thing to opine on, but principles are always safe.

    I have two passages from Charlotte Mason’s Parents and Children I’d like us to consider today. The first is this:

    Disposition, intellect, genius, come pretty much by nature; but character is an achievement, the one practical achievement possible to us for ourselves and for our children; and all real advance in family or individual is along the lines of character. Our great people are great simply by reason of their force of character.

    p. 72

    Later in the same volume, at the beginning of her “Catechism of Education Theory,” Miss Mason repeats herself:

    We believe —

    That disposition, intellect, genius, come pretty much by nature.

    That character is an achievement, the one practical achievement possible to us for ourselves and for our children.

    That all real advance, in family or individual or nation, is along the lines of character.

    That, therefore, to direct and assist the evolution of character is the chief office of education.

    p. 233

    Let’s reflect on this.

    “… genius come[s] pretty much by nature …”

    I’ve read a lot on IQ and genetics. What I’ve read tells me that IQ runs in families. While poor prenatal nutrition, prenatal drug use, and/or  malnutrition during childhood can adversely effect IQ, IQ is generally an expression of genetics, something a child is born with, and doesn’t change much over time (barring an accident or sickness that hurts the brain).

    High IQ parents are more likely to have high IQ children because while high IQ hasn’t been narrowed down to a single gene, it still appears to be heritable.

    The question is why does this matter?

    First, modern IQ research seems to bear out what Miss Mason is asserting here — we don’t have much influence over IQ.

    More importantly, when Charlotte Mason reminds us that “genius comes by nature,” she’s doing this in the context of an educational conversation. We cannot make genius. Some are born with it, and some aren’t.

    The point is that the creation of genius is not an educational task.

    Whatever we think about educational goals, raising IQ shouldn’t be one of them — it’d be a waste of time.

    “… character is an achievement …”

    While IQ is generally unchanging, character is changeable. Whether children are geniuses, or “normal,” or special needs, they can all grow up to be good persons … or bad persons.

    In her very first volume, Charlotte Mason shares with us where she’s coming from and why what she writes is so important to her. You see, as a teacher, Charlotte Mason found the outcomes disappointing. She wrote:

    [T]he disappointing thing was, that nothing extraordinary happened. The children were good on the whole, because they were the children of parents who had themselves been brought up with some care; but it was plain that they behaved very much as ”twas their nature to.” The faults they had, they kept; the virtues they had were exercised just as fitfully as before. The good, meek little girl still told fibs. The bright, generous child was incurably idle. In lessons it was the same thing; the dawdling child went on dawdling, the dull child became no brighter. It was very disappointing. The children, no doubt, ‘got on’ — a little; but each one of them had the makings in her of a noble character, of a fine mind, and where was the lever to lift each of these little worlds?

    Home Education, p. 98

    She goes on to say:

    Consideration made the reason of the failure plain: there was a warm glow of goodness at the heart of every one of the children, but they were all incapable of steady effort, because they had no strength of will, no power to make themselves do that which they knew they ought to do.

    Home Education, p. 99

    When Charlotte Mason talks about habit training, growing minds with ideas, building relationships, and training the will (among other things), all of this began with her observation that education as it stood in her time was not producing an improved people. Children exited school pretty much the same as they entered it, only older.

    “… all real advance in family or individual is along the lines of character.”

    This reminds me so much of the Greek concept of paideia. In his book, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, Werner Jaeger writes that Greek education was an aspect of paideia, and paideia was

    the creation of a higher type of man.

    p xvii

    Charlotte Mason’s earliest complaint about education was that it left the child where he was — there was no improvement in character. The truth that she perceived is that character is the only means to accomplish real advance, yet that means was overwhelmingly neglected.

    I think we all know that great genius, if put in the service of self or evil, if given into the hands of a man of low calibre, is squandered at best and dangerous at worst.

    And yet, when I look at the world of gifted education, I rarely see character discussed.

    What I see instead is rather disturbing. Little Susie is gifted, and that’s why she has such violent tantrums. Tommy’s IQ is rather high, and that’s why he lies so much — he’s just highly imaginative. Sweet Isabelle has rather a dark side, yes, but you see she’s a genius and she just feels things so much more intensely than you and I.

    “… to direct and assist the evolution of character is the chief office of education.”

    Here’s the reality: gifted kids can be difficult. I’m not denying this.

    What I am denying is that gifted children are somehow less human than other children, that they cannot be taught self-control, that they must remain slaves to their passions and impulses.

    This means we stop using giftedness as a label to excuse bratty, selfish, and self-centered behavior. Giftedness does not mean the child cannot be trained to have self-control. It certainly does not mean the child cannot learn to consider others.

    The application of this idea requires wisdom. Gifted children are often misunderstood. People see rebelliousness when the child is being inquisitive. Parents are annoyed when the child’s intense quest for knowledge is an inconvenience. Schools often maintain an atmosphere that is frustrating to gifted children, which is basically a giant temptation to misbehave (and, yes, even have a tantrum).

    Acknowledging that character should be the primary goal of education doesn’t mean we need to address all problems as solely character problems. Character issues are often tied to other issues. As in all educational challenges, in order to prescribe a solution, we first have to look at the big picture and make sure we’re accurately assessing the problem.

    It’s important to remember that character is formed by many tools, not just condemnation of bad behavior.

    The point here is that education is still education, regardless of what sort of child we have before us. In classical and Charlotte Mason education, character reigns supreme. It is our goal, our aim. It isn’t ignored and it isn’t excused. The game doesn’t change just because a child has a high IQ.

    In other words …

    Gifted children are persons, too.

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  • Reply Abigail Thomas July 28, 2022 at 9:47 pm

    Bringing up an old comment thread because I’m researching CM and giftedness, and this is great! I fall on the overly critical/pessimistic side of parenting, so it was a relief to me to realize that my very bright son struggles with hyperactive ADHD, and that there are ways I can see it and help him cope with it, instead of just seeing him as very fallen/seeing myself as a terrible parent, which was my default. It feels very similar to when I realized that I was actually struggling with depression/anxiety a few years back, and that I wasn’t just an ungrateful grumpy mom. Brain chemistry matters! Which CM would echo I believe, with brains rut/neuroplasticity insights! Especially when character growth already is your #1 goal and you’re so frustrated you can’t make progress, realizing the nature that you’ve got it super helpful sometimes!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel July 30, 2022 at 11:10 am

      Yes! I think it’s so helpful that when Charlotte Mason defines a person, she starts with the idea that they are a homogenous unity of body and soul (see School Education chapter 7). It is so easy to focus on one thing and see them just as souls (sinners struggling with sin) or just as minds (intellects struggling with learning) or just as bodies (brains struggling with chemistry), but in echoing Scripture, she offers us the paradigm of a whole child, and shows us that to deal with the whole rather than just the part, is wisdom. ♥

  • Reply Michelle May 13, 2019 at 9:21 pm

    Brandy this is such an encouragement for parents who do wonder how to parent children who are navigating giftedness. I used to wonder why a some parents with gifted kids would seemingly ignore character issues – I didn’t really understand the struggles they were having finding boundaries. The distinction you made for working on character is universal.

  • Reply Mothering a Book Glutton (Charlotte Mason and Gifted Kids) | Afterthoughts January 14, 2019 at 4:51 pm

    […] answer it requires us to return to first principles. If the goal of our education is good character — virtue — rather than just knowing stuff, then things like this […]

  • Reply Crystin December 1, 2017 at 7:06 pm

    What a breath of fresh air this truth is!
    As the dyslexic mom of a dyslexic, I am smack dab in the middle of special needs and giftedness, and I understand both the struggle and the beauty of both. Dyslexics have special needs, but they are gifted, and that presents a perfect storm for excuses not to parent. My “do what I don’t want to do, don’t do what I want to do” sin is pride…and I have too often found myself parenting, and educating, with the sole aim of showing off my son’s brilliant and beautiful mind. I have had to fall on my knees in repentance for that very thing too many times, and I consistently have to order my affections towards both his character and my own in education. Thank you, for the reminder that character- and a relationship with Christ- is the aim. <3

    • Reply Brandy Vencel December 5, 2017 at 9:18 am

      I like this phrase: “a perfect storm for excuses not to parent” — I think it helps when we recognize these things for what they are for us: temptations to not parent. That was a revolutionary moment for me, when I realized that when various things (not just dealing with giftedness, but things like health issues) were tempting me to forsake my duty. It gave me a fresh perspective and determination, I think.

  • Reply Mama Rachael November 25, 2017 at 6:35 pm

    Yes, yes, yes. I’ve got a twice gifted one here, and so many people go on about how smart he is and how quick he is… as if that excuses his many other character issues. My 2nd child is starting to look like he is gifted, too, but, hopefully, without the other issues. I’ve often wondered if parenting the gifted child is harder or if it’s the other issues we’ve dealt with or if I just don’t know any better…. when he started on meds to help with the other issues, wow, life got so much easier. I realized that what we’d been dealing with was exceptional.

    At the same time, his quick thinking and quick learning (and understanding) makes some things harder. There is a reason I don’t ‘discuss’ why I require this that or the other. He can argue, effectively, circles around me (and I’m a fairly quick person myself!). I think that I fully grasp that his intelligence doesn’t excuse his poor character, I just wish others, like grandparents, would.

    I needed to hear this, for sure. To be reminded of what is truly important. Thank you.

  • Reply Celeste November 25, 2017 at 1:48 pm

    Great post, Brandy! The overall point you make here relates also to personality typing. Understanding how our brains are wired, what our natural inclinations are, and what are particular struggles likely will be shouldn’t be an excuse for poor behavior — though I have heard it used as such. Knowing our personality type should help us understand what particular “pet passions” we need to pinpoint, what particular goals we should be working toward. And knowing our children’s, friends’, or husband’s type is helpful in that it helps us understand how to support them and communicate with them more effectively. In all cases, virtue is virtue, and we’re all called to it. Thankfully, we all have will and reason that allow us to move toward it — CM was so careful about insisting on that. Much to ponder — thank you for sharing!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel November 25, 2017 at 2:52 pm

      I LOVE the connection you made here, Celeste. I totally agree. I like to think of personality typing as a way to gain insight into both strengths as well as weaknesses — and IQ testing can give similar insight, you’re so right! And then it’s a two-edged sword. Because, yes, we could just say, “Oh, ENFPs are just this way” or whatever — and that happens. But understanding my child or even myself doesn’t mean I leave myself where I am, or my child where he is. It means I see where we can both grown and mature as persons.

      What was that Plotinus said? “Be always at work carving your own statue.” Or something like that. I like it because it has that work-in-progress feel.

      I love that CM could put all of this into a context that wasn’t overbearing or mean — it was just an accepted part of life that character must be developed, and sometimes that can be difficult…

    • Reply Lisa A November 26, 2017 at 10:23 am

      I recently had a conversation about this very thing when my brother was a little exasperated with the way people sometimes use personality types as an excuse for poor/selfish behavior. And it’s so true – typing can help us to understand better, and that’s a GOOD thing, but we don’t get to use it as an excuse to avoid stretching and growth. We need to use that understanding to help ourselves and our children as we all work toward the Ideal.

  • Reply Mariel November 25, 2017 at 8:56 am

    I agree, and will add that making excuses for not parenting isn’t limited to parents of gifted children.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel November 25, 2017 at 2:54 pm

      Mariel, that is so true! I think there is a lot of excusing that goes on as a direct result of forgetting that both education as well as mothering have a character formation focus.

  • Reply Samantha November 25, 2017 at 8:52 am

    This is a wonderful post. My husband is gifted. Growing up he was misunderstood by his mother and teachers. He didn’t have much guidance or help so when he was 13 he dropped out of school because he was bored and no one really cared what he did. At the age of 26 he changed -growth in character and change as a person. He went on to finish his A levels go to Cambridge and MIT all on scholarship. My daughter takes after him in many ways but one thing we aim is to teach her character and that all education is self education.

    I’ve read other blog post on giftedness and they all are about twice gifted and while I believe there are children that are most of it seems to be an excuse for bad behavior. This is the first post that I have read that is just about giftedness. I look forward to reading more!

    “The question is not, — how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education — but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?” -CM

    • Reply Brandy Vencel November 25, 2017 at 2:56 pm

      WOW! This story about your husband is amazing! I’m so glad that dropping out wasn’t the end of the story for him. Think about how much potential would have been lost! ♥

      I do think twice exceptional students have some added issues, yes, and I find it muddies the waters for children who are just “normal gifted” — as if there were such a thing. 😉

      By the way, that CM quote at the end? It’s one of my absolute favorites! ♥ Full lives. That is what we want for all persons, even little gifted ones. ♥

  • Reply Erin November 25, 2017 at 12:31 am

    Wow, so much commonsense, yes!!!

  • Reply Amanda November 24, 2017 at 5:40 pm

    Excellent thoughts! You really hit the nail regarding the “IQ as excuse” trend–exhausting, and one reason why I’ve always been hesitant to explore any formal labeling of my possibly “officially” gifted children. I was homeschooled growing up, and I’ve always told people that having nothing but my own aspirations as a standard was one of the greatest advantages! I had no idea where what I was doing fell on the “gifted and talented” scale. I’ll take an ambitious, competent, and disciplined intellect over lazy genius any day!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel November 25, 2017 at 2:59 pm

      I love that. And I love what you said about your own aspirations being the standard, Amanda. It reminds of how in Home Education talks about emulation (a desire to excel peers) actually holds children back from a true quest for knowledge.

  • Reply tess November 24, 2017 at 4:50 pm

    Kazimierz Dąbrowski, ladies. Am I right? 🙂

    Great article, Brandy. I think you hit the nail on the head.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel November 25, 2017 at 3:01 pm

      Yes, Tess! Personality growth is necessary for persons. ♥

  • Reply Lynette November 24, 2017 at 1:54 pm

    I agree with what you’ve said. I’m in many ways quite new to the discussion of gifted children and I can see how easy it would be to head down a path of excusing behavior, but I just want to say that when your doctor says, “This isn’t typical behavior for a 7 year old,” it’s a major relief to realize it IS typical behavior for a gifted 7 year old. It is of course behavior which my daughter needs to grow in, but understanding why that behavior is there is key to working through it effectively.

    Now, helping others in her life to understand this without making it sound like I’m making excuses for her… but helping them have the right perspective so they can respond in a way that helps everyone involved…

    • Reply Brandy Vencel November 24, 2017 at 2:00 pm

      “when your doctor says, “This isn’t typical behavior for a 7 year old,” it’s a major relief to realize it IS typical behavior for a gifted 7 year old.” — SUCH a good point, Lynette!

      I remember being afraid once because I had a toddler talking about death all the time. People kept acting like it was a sign of mental illness. When I realized that gifted kids can grasp abstract concepts like death — and want to talk about it — much earlier than “normal,” I could just relax into the conversations instead of worrying…

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