Too Smart for Our Own Good?

Q: I can relate well to last week’s letter-writer who spoke about a charismatic child towards whom both adults and children easily gravitate.

We have a 12-year-old son who possesses a lot of chein, but we’re a little worried that this character trait is becoming problematic. He can look right into your eyes while exaggerating (and sometimes even lying), as if his words are totally true. Of course, his siblings often feel that he’s not paying attention to them. He believes that he always knows better, and he can charm his way out of many situations.

It’s so strange how he knows intuitively how to ask for something from one relative, and then make a different request from another relative in a totally different manner. It’s as if he researched the techniques of award-winning salesmanship! He knows how to compliment people; this allows him to receive favors from others without much effort.

He sincerely likes people, is very kind and not selfish, and usually manages to get what he needs. I think he feels that since he can always wiggle his way out of things, why not enjoy himself in the moment?

As I’ve told him several times, I see a lot of myself in him. Bli ayin hara, I have done well in business over the years, and I seem to have a certain intuition when it comes to dealing with clients. I take certain risks because I am convinced that I can bail myself out if I get stuck. I am ehrlich in my business dealings, but I often have to check myself to be sure that I’m not using my street smarts to take advantage of anyone.

That being said, what’s the best chinuch approach to take with our son?

A: The famous Gemara that asks that our children not be too smart, too handsome, etc., stresses the idea that any positive trait, in excess, can be problematic. In terms of being too smart, we see children who feel that they must always score 100 percent on every test and are filled with anxiety. In terms of beauty, we see individuals who spend excessive time on personal grooming because their identity is strongly connected to their appearance.

We see the dangers of “too” as well in people whose social acumen is above average. As you point out, this character trait can be very helpful. In business, it can help sell a product or service. In human interaction, it can convince someone to pursue the right derech in Yiddishkeit.

However, there is a flip side to this coin. Manipulation of others — causing them to do something they don’t want to do — is common among charismatic individuals with an overblown sense of self-esteem. Being fearless when dealing with authority (especially in the area of truth vs. falsehood) is another area where one can fail.

It has been stated that Hashem gives parents children with characteristics similar to their own in order for a child to receive successful chinuch. Sharing with your child the challenges and successes of your common characteristics is a most direct form of chinuch. You can mention how important it is to be honest with yourself, and how you are proud of the many times you have not deceived yourself in business matters. The idea of inadvertently manipulating another human being needs to be discussed, including the many ramifications of such actions.

Once we leave this world to be judged, the first question to be asked of us will be about honesty in our business dealings. How does this apply to each of you? You can honestly discuss the gift Hashem has given you both of being intuitive to others, and how it can be used to benefit the world in so many ways. Stress the concept that fearlessness needs to be intertwined with humility and awareness of the consequences of one’s actions. All of these ideas can be exemplified through stories of Gedolim and ehrlicher Yidden throughout time.