“Dear Highlights”: Life-Changing Advice Worried Kids Have Needed and Heeded for 75 Years

The beloved children’s magazine has always believed its young readers are capable of thinking and reasoning at an earlier age than most people give kids credit for.

Dear Highlights – You have been around longer than most of us and keep getting letters from worried kids. How do you help them?

For the answer, open to almost any page of the new book, “Dear Highlights: What Adults Can Learn from 75 Years of Letters and Conversations with Kids.”

The first thing you’ll learn is that childhood is no picnic. “Some kids write to share good news with us,” says Christine French Cully, the editor-in-chief of Highlights as well as the new book. “But usually they write to us because they have something they are wrestling with and either they haven’t been brave enough to approach an adult with this question, or they have and they felt they were dismissed. Or they just feel safer writing it in a letter.”

Those problems range from excessive homework to excessive drinking on their parents’ part. And of course there’s the age-old  fear that no one will like them at the new school. In fact, worries about relationships with friends and family come up over and over. Highlights’ advice is compassionate, but bracing: It expects kids to take action, not mope.

Wish things could change? Change ’em!

Feeling friendless? Go over and talk to some kids. Feeling unheard? Engage with the teachers, parents or friends you think are ignoring you. When one girl wrote that she and her twin were constantly being compared, Highlights told her it would be fine to “politely point out that you have your own personalities and gifts.”

That is almost Mary Poppin-ish in its pert good sense.

“Highlights was founded by two lifelong educators – Garry and Caroline Myers, a true team – and they started [the magazine] in their retirement years, after long careers of researching children and listening to them. They were ahead of their time,” says Cully. One of the things they believed, “is that children are capable of thinking and reasoning at an age earlier than most people thought. And also that kids learn best through positive suggestion, a positive outlook on life.”

That explains why Goofus never actually strangled Gallant, as well as the tone of most of the advice Highlights gave, which seems – like the children’s concerns – pretty consistent over the years. (Although Cully says that she has seen an uptick in child anxiety.)

Kids are trusted with the truth: Sometimes no matter how hard we try, people don’t listen.

And so, a boy feeling lonely because his dad works nights was told: Why not do some chores together? You’ll have time to bond! A girl mistakenly accused of throwing a pinecone got the response: “Sometimes no matter how hard we try, we just can’t convince people of something.” To a girl feeling her life just wasn’t as magical as the kids’ in Disney movies, Highlights wrote: “It’s very natural and sometimes helpful to draw inspiration from other people in our lives.” But, Highlights went on, we also tend to “overlook the fact that everyone has challenges, everyone has weaknesses and everyone works hard and has setbacks.”

By being kind but refusing to, well, coddle, Highlights helped worried kids, confused kids, even despondent kids press the re-set button: You don’t have to keep feeling bad, even though you might have things to feel bad about.

Even when you can’t fix things, you can learn from them.

That calm and life-affirming outlook may have encouraged even older kids to trust Highlights with their problems. One girl wrote that she’d accidentally blurted out that her friend was gay – and everyone heard. Stricken with remorse, she asked Highlights how to fix things. The editors wrote back:

“We can understand how bad you must feel to have caused your friend’s embarrassment. All of us have done things that we wish we could undo. But life isn’t like that. The best we can do is try to make amends for what we have done and learn from the experience. Experiences can help us grow stronger and wiser.”

Wow.

A world of positive psychology

I’m starting to wonder if we can clear out the self-help section at the bookstore and just stock a bunch of “Dear Highlights.”

The secret seems to come from understanding what a big impact a child’s seemingly small worries may be having on them, and then providing a few straightforward ways for kids to change their situation, or their perspective, or find some way to face those problems with more peace and hope.

Dear Highlights: How can we all look at life the way you do?

Christine French Cully, Editor-in-Chief, Highlights