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.

3 responses to “The 99 percentile child

  • Jade Rivera

    Your understanding and empathy for the gifted child is inspiring. Thank you for this brave writing!

  • Zaynab Ameen

    Dear Kathi:
    Thank you. As a gifted person that has done research on the issues of Gifted Adults. I started roaming the internet to find some kind of counseling for the ongoing issues I have with being a gifted person, even in college. Exactly, I categorize everything, do research for fun, and use my gifts to fight/advocate for vulnerable populations but I don’t think I’m better than anyone else at all. I’m 39 years old and a senior in college after 20 years of doing all kinds of things in between but always studying some subject or another at home. I went back to school thinking I would finally be able to be myself and I find myself being shunned even more so than normal. Why do I have to hide that I do research for fun in college? And I can’t tell you how much heart pain and tears I hold back in psychology, ethics, or humanity courses because all my classmates care about is getting a job and don’t see any connections between poverty and race or other such connections that I thought was pretty common knowledge.

    As far as I am concerned they are ruining school for me. I don’t know if you experience this, but when I can’t utilize my intellect in the way I need to, I shut down emotionally, become very depressed, and physically struggle to do anything at all. Where do I get help, meet, and talk with my “gifted” peers? Thanks again for your story. It helped me remember that I am not crazy. Here’s a recent article I found about the misdiagnosis of gifted children due to a lack of medical training and knowledge.

    • kathi

      How I understand you! I am another one who loves to research. When I was young, my mother bought an old set of encyclopedias that she kept in our basement, on a shelf. How many time she sent me to the basement, to her food storage shelf, then came down a half an hour later to find me engrossed in one volume or another of that encyclopedia!

      I also understand feeling the need to hide your giftedness. I was fortunate that, in seventh grade, my school system selected the top thirty students (out of 900) in each subject to study an advance program that was essentially two grade levels ahead.

      But even in a group of gifted students, I found the boys were still very threatened by my giftedness. A few weeks into the school year, one of them came up behind me, tapped me on the shoulder, and as I turned around, he said, “Hey Dummy! Yeah, you!” And so through junior and senior high, my classmates called me “Dummy.” Thankfully, I graduated a year earlier than they did and escaped them!

      But it took me years and years to learn how to mask my giftedness and how to guide the “less gifted” in the workplace to good conclusions and good decision by asking them carefully designed questions to lead them there.

      I am so sorry for the pain that you have endured. It is difficult. Both my kids (both gifted) are in college now. Previous to this, they were home schooled, so this is really their first extended encounter with “normal” people. After three years, my daughter is getting more used to it. My freshman son, on the other hand, cannot believe that people can be so “dense” and “thick.” He said, “How can they stand being like that?” I told him, “Sad thing is, they don’t even know it!”

      Well, hang in there! Enjoy yourself for who you are. Enjoy what you research. The beauty of being a gifted introvert is that you can research and read for hours and hours, by yourself, and be HAPPY the WHOLE time! So, enjoy being who you are!

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