Our Birthday Wish as Highlights Turns 75

I was fortunate as a child to have had a loving, attentive family. But like many tweens, I was uncomfortable sharing everything with my parents. Luckily, I had other caring adults in my life, including a favorite uncle. Temperamentally, he and I were a lot alike—quiet and introspective. A single man who farmed for a living, he spent most of the non-growing season reading near a wood stove—and answering my letters to him. Not regularly but often, I’d drop him a line, sharing the mundane facts of my everyday life and, more to the point, some big questions that mystified me: Why are we here? Why do bad things happen to good people? What should I do with my life?  You know, simple little answerable questions like that.

He always wrote back.

Rather than offering definitive answers to my philosophical wonderings, he sent back comments and questions to keep me thinking. But even more important was what rode along in every return envelope: validation. Validation in the form of a clear YES to the questions I didn’t even realize I was asking: Does what I think and feel matter? Do I matter?

Little wonder then, that when I joined Highlights and learned of the company’s long-held practice of answering every child who writes to the magazine, I was surprised and delighted.

This summer, we’re celebrating 75 years of engaging with kids—millions at a time with our magazines and one-on-one with letters. Our tradition of replying to every child created an ongoing, authentic dialogue with kids. We write to them in the spirit they write to us—as a dear, trusted friend.

The letters from years past touch on the same broad spectrum of childhood concerns as the letters we receive today. Kids write to us about school, friends, and family matters. They write about their hopes and dreams, and their worries and fears. They ask, “What should I do?” “What do you think?” The world has changed significantly, but the way children grow has changed very little. Kids navigating the ups and downs of childhood still seek support and guidance from caring adults.

In our replies, we offer helpful suggestions. But most importantly, we listen with curiosity and empathy. We want kids to feel heard. We want to answer those unspoken, fundamental questions embedded in every letter to us, no matter the topic: Does what I think and feel matter? Do I matter?

The treasure trove of correspondence we’ve amassed is a testament to the depth and complexity of childhood. Recently, we spent many hours poring over thousands of letters preserved in a special collection at The Ohio State University. Some letters made us laugh. Others left a lump in our throat. All of them deepened our appreciation of childhood as a time of heavy lifting for kids. They reinforced our belief in the importance of listening to whatever kids want to tell us.

The tendency to ignore or dismiss the perspectives of kids is as old as childhood itself. But in the din of today’s rapidly changing, complex world—where even the best-intentioned adults can find it hard to be fully present and attentive—the voices of kids are too easily muted or dismissed. We wanted to amplify kids’ voices, and share what we’ve learned that has allowed us to serve them better. We've just published a carefully curated collection of kids’ letters, emails, poems, and drawings in our first book for grown-ups: Dear Highlights: What Adults Can Learn from 75 Years of Letters and Conversations with Kids.

As the letters selected for this anthology attest, kids are hungry for an attentive ear, and they crave more meaningful connections. As we look back over the many confidences children entrusted to us in the last 75 years, our birthday wish is that the perspectives offered in this volume will touch adult readers as much as they touched us.

We hope this book will serve as an enduring reminder to encourage kids to share their thoughts, and to listen with an open heart and mind. Only then can we realize our shared vision for a more empathetic and optimistic world. A world where children—the world’s most important people—can become their best selves: curious, creative, caring, and confident.

Christine French Cully

Christine French Cully is Chief Purpose Officer and Editor in Chief at Highlights for Children. As Chief Purpose Officer, Cully’s focus is on growing awareness and implementation of the Highlights purpose, core beliefs, and values—to help actualize the organization’s vision for a world where all children can become people who can change the world for the better....