The 99 percentile child

My first BIG mistake as a gifted child was doing so well on the National Basic Skills test in kindergarten. You see, my overall score put me in the 99th percentile.  From then on, when we would take the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or whatever national test my school gave each year, my mother would say to me, “Don’t worry, you’ll do just fine. You’re a 99 percentile child.”

She meant well, she did. In Mom’s mind, I had nothing to worry about—she was confident, based on my past performance, that I would breeze through this test like I had done with all the others. To my “child mind,” however, I felt pressure to perform perfectly, to keep up the “batting average” as it were.

Mom and I worked this out some years later, when I was in college. I admit, though, that telling this story to my kids gave rise to a phrase we use in our family. My son started using it as a categorizer. People who were gifted, who had razor-sharp minds and lightning-fast reasoning skills, he called “99 percenters.” The less mentally quick, the less skilled at logic, he would label as a “90 percenter” or an “80 percenter” or “75 percenter” or a “bottom 50 percentile” person.

If you are reading this and you are gifted, you understand this. If you are not gifted, you are probably insulted. This probably seems arrogant, intellectually snobbish, and unfair. You might feel looked down upon, less than, or demeaned.

But that’s not what a gifted person is thinking when he or she makes these distinctions. Many gifted minds just automatically categorize and sort life. Life is patterns to the gifted mind. What most people see as chaos and chance, gifted people perceive as patterns and statistics. Classifying people just comes with the territory for gifted people.

I think there’s another reason we gifted people do this—it helps us understand our social awkwardness. When we are alone in a group of normal people, and we make a joke, and no one laughs, no one gets it, or they all react like we’ve spoken completely out of place, we say in our heads, “Well, they’re not 99 percenters.” And we feel less rejected. Less misunderstood. After all, they didn’t really have a chance at understanding us like our gifted friends do.

There’s something else we categorize and keep track of, albeit sub-consciously. It’s the tally of how often our observations, conclusions, and predictions are correct or incorrect. And, still sub-consciously, we also tally that concerning the people around us, and we are vaguely aware of how much more often we are right than are others. And this sometimes gives us a confidence that normal people interpret as smugness or thinking that we are better than them.

We don’t really think about it that way in our heads. We are much more logical and “Vulcan” about it—just as a sports team goes with their strongest and best players, shouldn’t any given group of people (even a family or a couple) go with the ideas from those with the proven success rate? Problem is, our track record can be threatening to the normal people around us, even if we are humble about it.

What if you are the parent of a 99 percentile child, particularly if you are not? It can be really challenging to have a child who not only asks so many questions you can’t answer, but who also comes with some really deep answers himself. A child who makes hugely insightful comments about the world at such a young age. If the parent doesn’t find a way to keep listening, to keep encouraging, if you dismiss your child’s gifted chatter,  then the child can shut down their giftedness as it were, or make it a very personal, private part of themselves. They may create an alter-ego who is the smart one and leave that “alter” trapped in their imaginary world. They may deny their giftedness and intentionally choose to write wrong answers and appear less smart than they really are. At the very least, they come to feel that being “smart” around their parent is not safe for them.

There’s something else a parent needs to know about a 99 percentile child. Unless the child is homeschooled or is in a class for gifted children, then most likely their other classmates are pretty frustrated with them. After all, your child spoils the grade curve. Your child shows them up. And children can be very cruel—your child’s classmates will find a way to let your child know just how different he or she is. Not many children enjoy being called the teacher’s pet or other such nicknames.

There’s other things they do and say to gifted children. I remember in high school, at youth group, we were having a team competition with Bible questions. Usually both teams would vie for me, since my high percentage of correct answers would give my team a distinct advantage. It happened this one day that I answered a question incorrectly. Now, everyone in the room had already given one or more incorrect answers. But it was unusual for me. So one of the kids called out, “There’s one for the record books, folks.” He pantomimed taking out a notebook and recording a tally mark while saying, “It’s a historic day, Kathi got one wrong. See, she’s not perfect after all.” And everyone laughed. I was so hurt! I had never ever suggested that I was perfect. I couldn’t help it if I had such an accurate memory for details. But all the kids started giggling and telling me that “see, you’re not perfect.” And it hurt. Enough that I remember it clearly, 35 years later.

So if you’re the parent of a gifted child, you need to care for your child’s heart. It starts when they are young, encouraging them to share their day with you before they go to sleep. Gifted children can “debrief” their day from the time they are speaking in paragraphs—definitely by the time they are three! If you create an atmosphere where they feel comfortable telling you anything at all about their day, then later on they will be able to share their deep feelings with you, even when those deep feelings are hurt feelings. And you can comfort and encourage them.


Please don’t “crinkle” in my ear

Today I finally carved out time to see “The Hobbit.” Got a great seat—how could I not, when there were only five of us in the theater. Just as the preliminaries were ending, and the previews were about to start, a man walked in, carrying food and drink. He sat in the row behind me, three seats over.

In the silence between the preliminaries and the previews, he ripped open his crinkly bag of some snack item, then rummaged in it to pull one out to eat. This crinkling noise was followed by a loud crunching noise that echoed in my ear. Thankfully the first preview came on, drowning him out.

Alas, it came to an end, and in the silence between it and the next preview, you know what I heard again! Crinkle, crinkle, crunch, crunch. By the time we arrived at the silence between the third and fourth previews, I turned to glare at the man, as much as one can glare in the semi-darkness.

For the remaining three silences between previews, it took all my will power to keep from standing up and telling him, “You had a WHOLE movie theater to find a seat in, and you just HAD to take a seat behind me?! Move to the back of the theater if you want to crinkle your bag and crunch your food so loudly!”

What restrained me the most was the knowledge that most people wouldn’t have even noticed his crinkling and crunching. Most people couldn’t really care less, even if they did hear it.

But as a highly sensitive person, not only do I hear these “meaningless” noises, but they attract my attention like a great magnet. The noise is an annoyance, something that shouldn’t be there. And the more I try to ignore it, the louder it sounds to me.

Just like when the neighbor leaves his car warming up for fifteen minutes, and the engine has a certain frequency which not only bothers my ears, but also vibrates in my being to such an irritating level that I need to use my sound-canceling headphones to escape from it.

If you are HSP, you may know what I mean. If your child has similar HSP problems, you may find your child complaining about annoyances that seem tiny and insignificant to you. But if you were in your child’s head, if you were in your child’s body, you would sense how difficult it can be for an HSP person tune out things that become “white noise” to others.

The only noise that I can use as white noise has to be perfectly consistent. If I can detect any inconsistencies in it, then I catch myself listening for the inconsistency to repeat itself. I fixate on the inconsistency. The inconsistency becomes louder than the rest of the noise, to me.

What do you do if this is your child? Understand that this “problem” will never really go away, so help him learn coping mechanisms. Like today, for me, I had to keep telling myself to stay calm, to hope that when the movie came on, it would drown out the crinkling, and to pray that he finished his noisy snacks quickly!


Gifted and Highly Sensitive to Stimuli

I said in my first post that when I read the book about a gifted mom raising a gifted daughter, it was like reading the story of my life. Well, half my life. It was when I started reading about Highly Sensitive People that I understood the other half of my life. And when I say “half of my life,” I don’t mean in terms of years. I mean the other half of my social awkwardness.

You see, over one-third of gifted people are also highly sensitive. The psychological term is “sensory processing disorder.” Simply put, you have trouble processing things that impact your senses.

Some people experience this in the area of touch. My son hates the “rough feel” of new clothes, even new t-shirts. I have to wash new t-shirts several times before they lose their “scratchiness” on his skin. Other children are overwhelmingly startled or disturbed by touch, especially a surprise touch.

Some children are over-sensitive to light. Others are very sensitive to textures of food and find it impossible to swallow certain textures.

When I go to a mall alone, I experience over-stimulation to the point of dizziness. So many people, so many things to see, so many lights in so many places! When my children were little, I found that pushing the stroller gave me a point of groundedness and eased my confusion of dizziness. Even just going into a large grocery store or Wal-Mart/Target type of store can still overwhelm me. I do much better if I am with one of my kids and can hold their hand or even interlock pinkies when I feel a wave of “too much stimuli” wash over me. Now that I am heading into the “empty nest” time of life, I’ve been working on other coping strategies to be able to shop by myself.

And then there are the “feelers”—people who can strongly sense the emotions of people around them. Add to that the prophetically sensitive people—most all prophetic people are highly sensitive people. For some who are gifted particularly in this area, being in a large group can be completely exhausting! I have experienced it mildly from time to time myself in the prayer room or at church; to me the atmosphere becomes “swirly.” It’s as though people’s emotions, emotional wounds, and spiritual difficulties are swirling around in the air, and I begin to feel physically light-headed from all the swirling.

If you can’t tell whether or not your child is highly sensitive, you might look at this site: http://www.hsperson.com/pages/test_child.htm and this one: http://www.sensory-processing-disorder.com/sensory-processing-disorder-checklist.html

What do you do if your child is HSP—a highly sensitive person? First, extend him or her a lot of grace! HSP kids tend to complain about everything that bothers them. And they take note of little changes from the ordinary. It can be exasperating at times, because as a parent you can’t control every detail of every day! And, you probably feel that they just need to “buck up,” learn to adapt and be flexible, get in line with the way the rest of the world is.

But the gifted, HSP child needs to be affirmed in their own reality, then learn coping mechanisms to help them get along in the “real world.” For example, instead of telling your child that the shirt does not feel scratchy to you and just to put it back on, you say that it must be bothersome to have such a scratchy shirt and that washing it and drying it a few times should help to soften it up.

As a child I found that counting my steps seemed to occupy my mind a bit so that I was less overwhelmed with all the stimuli around me. When I began reading books about high sensitivity, I found that one coping mechanism one author suggested was counting one’s steps. There were several other suggestions that author made which I found I had discovered on my own. Things I did for which I had no idea why I did them, other than it helped me get through the day.

Another day, in another post, I’ll share more coping mechanisms to help your highly sensitive child.


No Small Talk, Please

Most gifted children/people I meet are not any good at small talk. I’ll be brutally honest—it just doesn’t interest us. Our brains are whirling at 100 mph, processing all we see around us, all the stray thoughts popping into our heads, all the while focusing on what we are really interested in at that moment.

So that’s why we seem distracted during “small talk time.” That’s why we don’t listen well during small talk. And why we suddenly cut into the conversation, without appropriate segue, and talk about something far afield from the current topic of discussion.

It’s not that we don’t value your small talk. It’s just that our brain doesn’t work that way. Actually, many of us WISH we could do small talk. We feel so awkward at wedding receptions, parties, gatherings, home groups. Everyone is smiling, chatting, laughing, and we are in the corner or up against the wall, or even in a group with two or three other people, and we are desperately wondering how to fit in. Some people don’t even notice our discomfort—they are not so attuned to others. Others wonder why we are so weird and why we make awkward comments from time to time. As for our parents, well, some feel pained when they watch our efforts. Others feel embarrassed, either for us or OF us. And yet others don’t even see our struggle to fit in.

How can you help your young gifted child in this area? For one, you might explain to him or to her that it’s okay not to be good at small talk. Validate their feelings. Affirm their value just the way they are. Start helping them to adopt coping mechanisms, like encouraging them at first to identify when they are tuning other people out and retreating into their own thoughts in the middle of a social setting. Once they begin to identify those times, encourage them to re-focus on the people around them and to tune back in to the conversation, looking for one item to comment on.

There’s one other thing that could really help your child—help them find another gifted child to be their friend. Ask them if there is anyone at school with whom they feel at ease. It might be another gifted child or a child who is comfortable around gifted people. Arrange times to have this other child over and make it easy for them to talk together. Maybe they will game together. You might encourage them to walk to the local public playground just to climb on the apparatus and talk. Especially for introverted, reticent gifted kids, talking can be challenging and unwelcome. Or, if your child is gifted in one particular area on which they fixate, it might be hard to find another child willing to talk only about that area. In this case, you might need to help them find another child with that same interest.

Although I am in mid-life, I still find small talk very difficult. I am so aware of my faults and tendencies to skip the small talk and dominate a conversation with a topic that interests me, that I leave social situations evaluating my behavior and mentally kicking myself in the head when I feel that I’ve failed. If you are the parent of a gifted child, you need to show a lot of grace to them. And if you ARE the gifted one, you need to have a lot of grace for yourself!


My child doesn’t seem gifted, just out of place

While I don’t appreciate being thought of as a square peg in a round hole, the fact is we gifted people don’t fit society’s norms. We perceive the world differently. We have a different sense of humor. Emotionally, often we react differently than others.

My sister attended an MIT movie night with my brother once, when he was a student at MIT. To her surprise, she was the only one in the room laughing at certain places, while the entire room laughed at things she didn’t find funny at all. That was the day she learned that “math & science” gifted people had a unified sense of humor which was quite different from hers.

I find that when we have gifted teens and young adults over to our house for dinner, invariably they will mention how they felt immediately at home with us and how surprised they felt when we understood them and their jokes and followed their trains of thought. All the more so if they were the only gifted kid in their family. On numerous occasions we’ve explained, “That’s because you’re a gifted child,” only to find they had no idea what a gifted child was or that they were gifted.

Then we go on to tell them the ways in which they just haven’t fit in with society, and they are amazed we know this. Yup, another gifted child discovers he is not alone in the world…

Then there’s emotions. Some gifted children are hugely empathetic. Not only do they sense what others are feeling, but at times the emotions of others can overwhelm them. When guided into good coping mechanisms, the child can grow up with healthy boundaries in place that allow them to feel their own emotions, sense others’ emotions, and yet remain separate enough not to be overwhelmed. When sensitive gifted children don’t learn good coping skills, they may shut down emotionally, in order to tune out the emotions of those around them. But they end up losing touch with their own emotions. In some cases, the child may withdraw from the world, hiding at home, hiding in their room, escaping through reading books or playing computer games, so that they don’t have to interact with others’ emotions. Still other children may actually create an identity within themselves where they place their emotions. That “person” only surfaces at time and in places where the child feels it is safe to feel.

Still other children may be greatly moved by music, beauty in nature, beautiful art, or combinations of numbers, yet seem unemotional when it comes to people. If the child does not learn that this is part of his or her type of giftedness, the child may grow to wonder why they don’t feel emotional about friends and family the way they see other people feeling.

If you are the parent of a gifted child, you may wonder about your child’s strong emotions or reticent behavior or strange sense of humor. The best thing you can do is to accept your child exactly as he is. Trying to change your child, to mold him into society’s norms for social interaction can often result in your child retreating further into himself or in feeling that there is something truly wrong about themselves.

When I was in elementary school, there was another gifted child in my class. I was the quiet, compliant type of child, so instead of complaining about easy the schoolwork was, I just did it and then used the rest of class time to read a library book. But this boy was neither quiet nor compliant. He was loud and restless, always getting in trouble. Now, back in the day, no one identified us as “gifted.” I was just “a good student” and he was “a poor student.” He never fit in, not in elementary school, nor in high school. No one understood him, and by his early twenties he was dead, never having reached his potential and always feeling badly about himself.

No, the best thing you can do for your gifted child is to accept them as they are and help them learn to live with their giftedness.


Gifted People Are Their Own Subculture

My daughter suggested I begin writing about being gifted and raising gifted children. She thought it would help parents raising gifted children to understand why they just can’t seem to understand their kid.

Why did my daughter assign me this task? Well, I was a gifted child, and I am raising two gifted children. So I suppose I have a lot of experience.

I didn’t really know about this category of “gifted children” until my first child, my daughter, was three years old. I discovered that she was learning to read and write just from watching Sesame Street. We were outside that fall, and I was raking leaves. I had given her some sidewalk chalk, and I thought she was doodling. “Mommy, come here!” she called. When I came over she showed me what she was doing. “See, I wrote your name. M-O-M. That spells Mom. And C-A-T, that spells cat.” So we started in on “nursery school” level workbooks of reading and math. She tore through the year’s worth in six weeks.

A friend observing her told me to get some books on gifted children, as she was sure my daughter was gifted. So I got a few books. One book was about a gifted mom raising a gifted daughter. I wept my way through the book as this author described my childhood. Page after page, she told the story of my life.

So I began to research this topic of giftedness and gifted children. And, bit by bit, I began to understand more about myself, my daughter, and my son.

I’m going to write about that journey. Tell you stories that happened along the way. Talk about ways to help your child cope with being gifted, being a 99 percentile child, having a different sense of humor than most of his classmates, getting so bored by teachers having to explain the same thing over and over to the rest of the class.

I’ll close this first post with a story. When my daughter was first learning to speak (she began at 6 months), I had a thought about small children and their propensity for saying “No!” So when she began speaking in short sentences and coming to wrong conclusions about the world, I didn’t correct her by saying, “No, it’s like this…” Instead I would say, “Well actually…” and then give the correct information. I reserved “No” for negative responses only. Well, she was the only child in the two-year-olds class at church who would correct other children (and adults) by saying, “Well actually…” She is nineteen years old now, but there are parents who remember her still as the toddler who said, “Well actually…”


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