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Respect for Children Drives Highlights’ Recent Stand

Kent Johnson had something to say about the U.S. government’s policy of separating refugee families at the border with Mexico, and he took to Twitter to publish his thoughts. Johnson, CEO of Highlights for Children Inc. and AAAS Member, wrote in the letter, “This is not a political statement about immigration policy. This is a statement about human decency, plain and simple...This is an appeal to elevate the inalienable right of all children to feel safe and to have the opportunity to be their best selves.”

Kent Johnson
Kent Johnson. Credit: None.

While Johnson alone signed the letter, other senior leaders and employees of Highlights for Children Inc., which publishes Highlights magazine and other children's publications, joined the conversation leading up to its publication, Johnson says. Highlights made the statement not only for the sake of the children whose families are seeking to come to the U.S., but also "because we want kids to understand the importance of having moral courage," Johnson wrote in the letter.

The public response to the Highlights post, on social media, in the press and in person, was both larger and "much more positive than we anticipated," Johnson says. "A lot of people wanted to reach out and tell us about how our statement touched them personally."

As an organization, Highlights has "a deep belief that we don't talk down to children," Johnson says; that strong respect for children informs the magazine's approach on its science coverage as well. Andy Boyles, Highlights magazine's longtime science editor, present contributing science editor and AAAS Fellow, says, "Where the science part fits in is with the ability to think and reason. We're helping kids, we hope, develop and hone those skills."

Boyles was hired to direct Highlights magazine's science coverage in 1994 by the magazine's first science editor, Jack Myers, Johnson's great-uncle, a biologist and professor at the University of Texas in Austin. At the time, Boyles was a science writer at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, writing mostly about medical research topics.

Andy Boyles, contributing scientific editor
Andy Boyles. Credit: Susan Shadle Erb.

While at Highlights magazine, Boyles learned to present science in a way that grabs the attention of most children, not just the ones who gravitate toward it naturally. He aims to help readers discover that science is an ongoing, self-correcting process that children can engage in. “That's why we like to tell stories. We find it's better to tell a story than to throw a lot of facts at a kid," he says.

A great deal of nuanced information can be packed into a brief story. Boyles pointed to one about narwhals and the scientists who study them, and to another that took a deep dive into the Wright Brothers' long process in developing the first airplane, demonstrating that scientists must have patience and persistence to break new ground. A third story, "Living in a Snake Zone," stepped into an area in Africa where poisonous snakes are common.

Now semi-retired and a consultant at Highlights magazine, Boyles says he has always tried to get kids more closely connected to nature where they find it. After running a story on cottontail rabbits, he got a letter "full of exclamation points" from a little girl who read the story and then saw a rabbit in her own backyard.

Every science article in Highlights magazine has been reviewed by an expert. "It has to stand up," Boyles says. Furthermore, controversial topics like evolution and climate change must be handled with sensitivity. "For some families, evolution is a troubling idea. I don't think it's our responsibility to pull children in one direction or another, but I want them to know that scientists have concluded that dinosaurs lived millions of years ago," and that the fossil evidence shows that birds evolved from them.

In terms of climate change, Boyles says, "We don't try to put the responsibility for saving the Earth on a six-year-old, or an eight-year-old, but we do want them to know that the world is warming up."

Some topics really appeal to children, like dinosaurs, robots and such "charismatic megafauna" as elephants, pandas and sharks. Some children discuss science around the dinner table with their parents, Boyles says, but not all children are that lucky. "We want to reach as many kids as possible," he says.