Thoughts on Intelligence


Obligatory picture from that day that has nothing to do with the topic of this post. You're welcome.

Is intelligence the king of all abilities?  Should I rejoice if my children have it, should I weep if my children don’t?

The Underbelly of a Well-Intended Compliment

I took the kids to the Exploratorium in the city this week.  It is a wonderland of gadgets and doohickeys and thingamabobs.  The girls loved it.  They ran around testing this, spinning that, dropping the other.  I dutifully followed with LP riding in his sling, while he tried to pick my nose and graced my ears with his sweet baby yells babbles.

There was a woman there with her two year-old grandson watching us.  After she listened to me and Mouse talk a little bit about one of the thingamabobs, she made a big deal of telling Mouse she’s smart.  She tapped her forehead and claimed “it’s what is up here that counts.”

I listened to this woman tell me how wonderfully smart she thought my daughter was and looked down at my son who has an intellectual disability, trying to hide a cringe.  I know she meant it kindly and I think to counter how much little girls get praised for their physical appearance over all else.  Still, I couldn’t help but wonder, if I accept that what sits in your brain counts the most in life, then what is LP?  Besides the fact that appraising intelligence in a three minute interaction seems clumsy at best, I’ve never really warmed to the idea that “being smart” should be such a great compliment at all.

Intelligence, Lacking, and Questions of Import

What is intelligence?  Merriam-Webster defines it as “the ability to learn or understand things or to deal with new or difficult situations.”  There are lots of competing theories out there, some more inclusive than others, but here I’m talking about conventional ways of seeing intelligence.  Raw processing power, IQ score, school grades and testing ability.

I recognize that there is some plasticity in the whole nature vs. nurture discussion, but for the most part, with regards to intelligence, I think people just have what they have.  A person can gain wisdom throughout life, but it isn’t the same as intelligence.

It bothers me that intelligence is the holy grail of modern society.  Calling someone smart is a sure fire compliment, but why?  A person can’t earn intelligence.  It says nothing of one’s character.  On the flip side, calling someone stupid is one of the worst insults possible (one that gets bandied about far too often, I believe).

I’m even appalled at some of the things I’ve seen between the physical and intellectually disabled communities.  Some clearly believe that no matter the state of one’s body, as long as the mind (i.e. intelligence) is “normal”, then they are equal to all able-bodied people.  Even among those considered intellectually disabled, I’ve read many autistic advocates or those with other learning disabilities insist that they are not “stupid” but rather just different. In an effort to cast off ignorant judgments from themselves, they denigrate another group.

No one wants to be stupid, right?  For me, the use of “stupid” feels uncomfortably similar to the r-word.  They’re both dirty words, after all.  No one ever called someone else stupid out of kindness or respect. Whenever I hear outrage over the use of the r-word, it seems inevitable that someone labels the person using the r-word as stupid (or lame, idiotic, moronic, dumb—all refer to disabilities in the past or present usage).  Isn’t that the same meaning of the r-word—a pejorative way to call someone unintelligent?  More often than not, the situation doesn’t even have to do with the topic of intelligence, but rather of values, education, politics, or something else entirely.  

How important is intelligence?  How much do we need to be intelligent?  Must we all be so desirous of being intelligent?  Must we mourn ourselves if a certain degree of intelligence is never ours to claim or taken away by accident, illness, or time?  Is lacking intelligence actually bad?  Is having intelligence really the holy grail of our society?

The Long Arc of Human Existence

Humans have been roaming the earth for an estimated 200,000 years.  In just a wee blink of Mother Earth’s eye, we’ve spread ourselves into every little corner of the world.  We have, arguably, gotten smarter.  What has it gotten us?

Each major advance owes itself quite a large part to human intelligence, but each advance is either misused or exacts a terrible price.  Nuclear energy gives way to atomic bombs.  The combustion engine gives way to environmental degradation.  Antibiotic medicine gives way to MRSA bacteria.  Prenatal testing gives way to needless abortions (I’m pro-choice, by the way).  Modern farming practices give us incredible yields but deplete our land.  Some even argue that our move from a hunting and gathering lifestyle to an agrarian one bought more food and stability with poorer health.

I think at heart, we are the same people who were roaming the earth all those years ago.  People who struggle with life, death, love and acceptance.  Does intelligence change the outcome?  I couldn’t dispute that human intelligence had a large hand on our proliferation all over this planet.  We’re beyond struggling for basic subsistence, however.  Those that do struggle for basic needs do so because others have denied them.

I’d like to think that more answers would come to us if we set our sights beyond intelligence. I daresay there enough to go around.  So maybe we could focus a little less on intelligence, be less worried about any lack of it, and focus on what actually makes our lives better—ethical living, compassion, and love. A person doesn’t need to be conventionally smart to aspire to these things and contribute to the world.

I don’t know if Mouse is unusually smart.  That woman’s compliment was a nice one, but I’ve decided that I can’t get excited about it. All I care is that my children grow up to be good and kind.  Brave and compassionate.  Loving.  Hardworking and loyal.

So I won’t rejoice or weep if my children are intelligent or not, because I can’t control it, nor does it seem to change what really counts.  We all have the capacity to live and love.  We will all have an impact, no matter what lies in our brains.

5 Things I’m Trying Not To Say About Babies

While I was at the park this morning with the kids, a woman approached us, smiling at LP.  My spidey sense buzzed a little.  But alright, I don’t want to pre-judge you, so let’s chat.

Halfway in, it started.  Groan.  It was clear she didn’t recognize that LP has Down syndrome, which was fine, but she also was wholly unaware that he might not fit into her idea of “normal”.  So all the questions about LP, along with her bragging about how early her grandson rolled over, sat up, walked, how “gifted” he was… Well, can you be happy for a person while also secretly wanting to smack them upside the head?  I knew she didn’t mean any harm and was just in love with her grandson, but I couldn’t help being irritated.

I’m not pointing fingers.  It is just the common discussion going around; I’m sure I’ve been that woman to someone else (and for that I’m sorry).  I never loved these kinds of discussions before LP, but honestly, the girls never fell outside of “normal” so I just shrugged and moved on.  Now that I have a child who isn’t going to fit into “normal” (and nor should he, for that matter), well, it stings.

The same play gets acted out hundreds, thousands, millions of times in a theater that seems way too concerned with abilities, milestones, intelligence, and being typical.  What’s more, the current theater isn’t terribly inclusive, and that means it isn’t great for any of my kids, not just LP.

So.  Five things I wish we didn’t talk about quite so much…

How old is your baby?

I know this sounds completely innocuous, but think about it.  Does it matter how old that baby is?  Not that talking about age is so terrible, but I’m trying to really examine why I ask that question when I do.  I’ll be honest, a lot of the times I’ve asked that question in the past, I’ve been sizing that kid up in my head, guessing an age and wanting to know if I am close.  The other times, I’ve wanted to compare that kid to my kid because they seemed close in age. Not all babies stick right on the 50th percentiles on growth charts, not all babies reach milestones in the average time frame.  What if the answer is completely unexpected?  Is knowing that number so important?

Your baby is so little!  Your baby is so big!

Babies just come out the way they come out.  Some are cute little peanuts and some are cute big brazil nuts.  The elder Taters were both very big babies, and I admit to feeling proud over it, but now, I feel silly for having thought that.  It isn’t something I could really take credit for, after all.  I treat LP the same way as I did the girls, and he’s just a different shape.

I bet he is just about to [insert milestone here]!  Has she [insert milestone here] yet?

If I’m a stranger, I don’t know that baby and the parent doesn’t know me.  So no matter my good intentions, it seems better to leave well enough alone.  The parenting world is stuffed to the gills with timelines, expectations, timeframes, and predictions for when babies will do what.  It is doubtful that anything I—the random stranger—have to say is news.  In fact, I’d wager that the parent has heard everything quite a few times already.  Oh, say, in emails, books, the pediatrician’s office, grandparents, aunts, uncles, co-workers.  Seriously, they’re all set.

What a smart baby.

Maybe it is just me, but I really don’t think that early behavior is such a great predictor of future smarts.  Not only is the very definition of “smart” very slippery, but constantly telling children that they are smart, as if that is a goal in and of itself, has some very undesirable consequences (seriously, click on the link, it’s interesting).  I now have a child who may not ever fit into the typical definition of “smart” (but who will undoubtedly be intelligent), and hearing this phrase just makes me wince.  Even if we could all agree on a definition of “smart”, complimenting a baby for being smart feels neither here nor there.  It isn’t as if the the baby is trying to be anything, so what does it do other than give a false sense of achievement?

What about more praise for being kind, hard-working, thoughtful, or funny?  I’d much rather some of these other words be used for all three of my children.

It doesn’t matter, as long as they’re healthy.

I used to think this was one of the safest things to say.  Now, no one is running around hoping they have a child with high medical needs.  Still, what happens when we unwillingly have to cross over that line?  All of a sudden you’re over there.

No one says it to the mother whose child just got diagnosed with leukemia.  No one says it to the father whose baby needs open heart surgery right at birth.  No one says it because it no longer rings true.  It isn’t about “as long as they’re healthy”, but more about being alive, being loved, and being valued, period.  I still have not walked in “high medical needs” shoes but I try not to draw any dividing lines based on health status anymore.  Medical issues just happen.  Kids are still kids.  Life is still life.


Please don’t get me wrong, it isn’t as if I think that we can never talk about milestones, age, size, or health.  It is just that I might not know everything about the person in front of me, or whoever might be listening a few feet over.

I want to talk more about character, connecting, humor, and celebrating difference.  Just because a conversation is casual doesn’t mean it has to be superficial.  We can  all agree that there is more to a baby than health status and numbers, right?  Apologies to the bajillions of parents who already figured this stuff out.  I admit, I knew it before and ignored it.  I’m just trying to know it a little better.

I’m trying to spend less time talking about things that matter less, and more time talking about things that matter more.  Seems reasonable.  Most importantly, I’m trying to spend more time fawning over delicious squishy little people, not for any reason other than they exist.  Not so awful, eh?

She said whaaat?