When our Brian, 17 when I first wrote this, was just a little guy and wanted
to know what the odds were that he would get what he wanted, he used to
ask, “What are the percents?”
In other words, what were the chances that he would get what he wanted?
50-50? 60-40? 90-10? And which number was in his favor?
Information in the news is frequently reported in percentages. All those
statistics and figures in the media will have no meaning until children
can become accustomed to the way they are used.
Parent preparation can make this information meaningful and understandable
to their children before they have the opportunity to use it in the
When I taught third and fifth grades, I found it helpful to use a tool
that many children understand: the dollar. Once children know the units
that make up a dollar (and especially that one hundred pennies is equivalent
in value) they can relate percentages to that dollar.
In this way, they can begin to understand, for example, that a store
having a sale of 10% off is not very enticing, yet 50% is a much better
If children don’t notice that the possible combinations of numbers always
add up to 100, this is something you could point out: how one candidate
has 40% of the electorate voting for her, one has 48%, and the remaining
12% is undecided.
Using and explaining the meaning of several familiar terms in our language
can help to transmit the bigger picture to children.
When talking about voting, children can see that majority means at least
one more than fifty percent.
Anyone giving 100 percent of effort is giving all of it.
Baseball fans have brought the term batting a thousand into the
lexicon. (This is, of course, a misnomer since the “thousand” is really
1.000, with a decimal point instead of a comma.)
I’ll bet that if you pay attention to percentages in your daily conversations
with your child, she will have a better than 50-50 chance of understanding
the concept when the topic is introduced in school.
This column has been incorporated into Teach Your Children Well: A