Dear Highlights: 75 Years of Letters and Conversations with Kids – PediaCast 510
- Editor in Chief of Highlights for Children, Christine French Cully, joins us as we explore 75 years of conversations between young readers and the magazine. We hope you can join us!
- Highlights for Children
- Dear Highlights Book
- Conversations with Kids
- Highlights Magazines
- Dear Highlights: 75 Years of Conversations with Kids – Amazon | B&N
- Kindness… According to Kids! – PediaCast 389
- Influencers and Worries… According to Kids! – PediaCast 419
Announcer 1: This is PediaCast.
Announcer 2: Welcome to PediaCast, a pediatric podcast for parents. And now, direct from the campus of Nationwide Children's, here is your host, Dr. Mike.
Dr. Mike Patrick: Hello, everyone, and welcome once again to PediaCast. It is a pediatric podcast for moms and dads. This is Dr. Mike coming to you from Nationwide Children's Hospital. We are in Columbus, Ohio.
It's Episode 510 for January 25th, 2022. We're calling this one "Dear Highlights: 75 Years of Letters and Conversations with Kids". I want to welcome all of you to the program.
So this week, we have the privilege of visiting with editor-in-chief of Highlights for Children, Christine French Cully. And if you're like me, you get pretty excited when Christine joins us because Highlights for Children really brings back lots of childhood memories for me. And I'm sure many of you out there right now are currently making childhood memories at home through Highlights for Children.
Back in the day, my favorite parts of the magazine, Hidden Pictures. I mean, when a new issue came, that was the first thing that I would thumb through to and find all those objects in the artwork. So Hidden Pictures was a favorite. The Timbertoes, I love them and then Goofus and Gallant. Those are my go-to's. And then I would browse the other content.
And there's something really special, when as a kid, you can hold a physical thing in your hand, like a magazine, flip through the pages, and know that this was made for you. It's something that belongs to you, right?
And I think that experience really help drive my love for reading and books, which is something that is really difficult for many kids today, with all of the competition for their attention, especially as we think about the many ways in which screens dominate our lives. We did not have all those options when I was a kid. So Highlights for Children was pretty special for me. And maybe for many of you, just as it continues to be special for many children today.
One of the really cool things that Highlights for Children has done in the past is their State of the Kid Report which, through information gathered by surveys, provides lots of insight into what kids are thinking about on many topics at a specific point in time.
And the last couple of times that Christine joined us on PediaCast, those reports were the topic of our conversation. I'll put links to two of those episodes in the show notes for you over at pediacast.org so you can find them easily. One of them was Episode 389, Kindness… According to Kids! And then, Episode 419, we talked about Influencers and Worries… According to Kids!
This week, she brings us something different and that is a new book called Dear Highlights: What Adults Can Learn from 75 Years of Letters and Conversations with Kids.
It turns out that each year, tens of thousands of children write letters to Highlights. They also send emails and drawings and poems. And they've been doing that since the magazine was first published 75 years ago. Not the email part, but the rest of it, they have been sending in to Highlights for 75 years.
Now, here's the real cool thing. Highlights responds to every letter, email, drawing, poem. Everyone they get, they respond. And it's not a form letter response. I mean, these are individualized replies which sometimes spark conversations on all sorts of topics with kids. Things like family and school and friendships and feelings, self-improvement, hopes and dreams, world events, biases and exclusions, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic, and many other really hard things.
Dear Highlights, the book, is a collection of these letters and conversations that span over the magazine's 75-year history. Some of those conversations have not changed much over the years, while other have changed considerably. It's fascinating stuff. And Christine French Cully will be here soon to share more with all of us.
Before she arrives, I do want to remind you, you can find PediaCast wherever podcasts are found. We're in the Apple and Google Podcast apps, iHeartRadio, Spotify, SoundCloud, Amazon Music, and most other podcast apps for iOS and Android.
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So let's take a quick break. We'll get Christine French Cully connected to the studio. And then we will be back with much more on Dear Highlights. It's coming up right after this.
Dr. Mike Patrick: Christine French Cully is editor-in-chief of Highlights for Children, which has published magazines for kids for a very long time, since 1946, in fact. And I'm sure there are many parents out there including myself who have fond memories of reading Highlights as a child and now, today, sharing that same magazine with their kids.
Well, now, there's also a book, Dear Highlights: What Adults Can Learn from 75 Years of Letters and Conversations with Kids, written by Christine French Cully. She's here to talk about the book. But first, let's give a warm PediaCast welcome to our good friend, Christine. Thank you so much for stopping by and visiting us again.
Christine French Cully: Thank you so much for having me. It's always a pleasure.
Dr. Mike Patrick: Yeah, really appreciate you taking time out. The last couple of times that you've been here, we've talked about the State of the Kid Report, which is at least before the pandemic, an annual report that really focuses on kids and what's concerning them at specific time.
And I mentioned in the intro to the show, we will put links in the show notes over at pediacast.org, so folks can find those episodes and listen easily. Because they were pretty compelling. And now we have a book, right?
Christine French Cully: We do. We have a new book. Our first book for adults, actually.
Dr. Mike Patrick: Yeah, now that is really exciting. Before we jump in to the book, for maybe some parents out there who have not heard of Highlights for Children, tell us a little bit about the magazine.
Christine French Cully: Sure. Highlights was started in 1946 by two educators, child psychologist Dr. Garry Cleveland Myers and his wife, Caroline Clark Myers. And they were people who were great respecters of children, observed children, studied children, life-long learners. They were published adult authors and children's content creators and they were very important in the emerging field of parenting back in the day.
And they had some beliefs about children, including the belief that children were capable of creating and thinking at a much earlier age than was most commonly thought. They knew that kids learn best when the learning was made fun and that kids learn from positive example.
And they believe that children, it was the time when the phrase, "Children should be seen and not heard" was still in use, which is kind of a big idea in the post-war baby boomer. And they thought that was a meaningful idea. We still think it is today. They encouraged parents to lean in and listen to their children and take pleasure in what their children had to say to them.
And so all of those beliefs created the foundation of the children's magazine that is so well-known today. It's kind of a cultural icon, Highlights for Children. And it has served children, millions of children a month for 75 years.
Now, today, of course, we're more than just a magazine publisher. We have three magazines, in fact, for children. But we also do book publishing. We have digital apps for kids. We have podcasts. So we really have grown to become a children's media brand.
Dr. Mike Patrick: Yeah, that's really fantastic. Highlights for Children, really your target audience is the six to twelve-year-olds. And then, Hello Magazine is for babies and two-year-olds, right?
Christine French Cully: Right.
Dr. Mike Patrick: And then, High Five Magazine is for ages two to six. And then you have a bilingual version of that in both English and Spanish, correct?
Christine French Cully: That's correct, yep.
Dr. Mike Patrick: I did my research.
Christine French Cully: You did. That's great.
Dr. Mike Patrick: Now, the interesting to me as I really saw this book for the first time is just how engaged kids are with Highlights outside of the magazine. I mean, you guys have been getting letters, and poems and drawings, and now emails from kids all over the place, really, since the magazine begin, right?
Christine French Cully: That's right. Kids have been writing to Highlights since our very beginning. They sent poems, drawings, favorite jokes, letters in which they share their hopes and dreams, their worries and fears, their questions and observations about the world. And it's been our practice over our entire history to reply to every child who writes to us.
In over 75 years, we've received and responded to more than 2 million pieces of correspondence from children. Today, we get about 2,500 pieces a mail a month from kids.
Dr. Mike Patrick: Wow, that is just amazing to me. And what's even more amazing is the fact that you respond. And it's not a form letter, right? I mean, these are individualized replies that you guys are sending out to these kids.
Christine French Cully: Right. We do have kind of I call it a customized form letter. When kids send us pictures and poems and drawings, they get a customized letter with their name on it and a comment that pertains to what they have sent to us. But when kids write us a letter and they share something about themselves, even if it's just "I love Highlights," they get back a totally personal response.
And the letters we receive from kids, it's so important to our work. It really deepens our understanding of childhood. And we see daily how hard kids work to find belonging, discover their strengths and build self-esteem. They write to us as if we are a dear trusted friend. And we try to respond in kind.
Dr. Mike Patrick: Yeah, and I know that when you are thinking about these responses, I mean, you really are letting kids know that their feelings are real, right, and what they think matters. And that's an important message for kids today.
Christine French Cully: Absolutely. And that's what we hope to do with this book, is sort of reignite a movement. I think a lot of people have talked about this for a while, but it's so important to lean in and listen to everything kids want to tell us.
No matter what kids write to us about, whatever the subject, over the years, there are overarching embedded questions in every letter. And those questions are things like, "Do you care?" "Do I matter?" "Does anybody care?" "Do I have a place in your life or in the lives of the people I love?"
They want more connection, more understanding. And we think it's a simple thing, leaning in and listening, but it's so important.
Dr. Mike Patrick: And we know that a lot of kids live in conditions where they experience toxic stress and chronic stress. And the resiliency is kind of the way out of that stress. And by having a trusted adult in the kid's life who loves them and empowers them, then that's really how you build resiliency in kids. And for some of those kids, Highlights fulfills that role.
Christine French Cully: Absolutely. We think sometimes kids write to us because it's difficult for them to talk to the people they love freely. We think some kids write to us because it's just difficult for them to have a face-to-face conversation about somethings that's important to them and it's easier for them to put their thoughts and feelings in a letter. Some kids don't write us letters but rather, they send us pictures that show what they're thinking and feeling.
And we treat those pictures, of course, as if they've written us a letter. And we respond to them with our customized letter that addresses their topic.
Dr. Mike Patrick: Yeah, absolutely. So let's jump in to the book. Tell us a little bit more about what folks can expect when they open up Dear Highlights.
Christine French Cully: Well, this is a book we've long talked about creating because we just wanted to share with parents and grandparents and teachers and everybody who cares about kids some of the things that we've learned from leaning in and listening to kids for 75 years.
So we think of the book as being part time capsule. It's a representative sampling of the mail we've received throughout our history. And it's also part portrait of a modern childhood, as we spent a lot of time going through our archive letters, which is such a treasure trove and are archived in a special collection in Ohio State University.
We verified what we always had a hunch about that, and that's this, that although the world has changed significantly in 75 years, the way kids grow and change hasn't changed all that much. They still write to us about the same fundamental issues they always have.
The trappings may have changed. The circumstance are somewhat altered but the fundamental issues kids are wrestling with in childhood are very much the same. So this book is a carefully curated collection of letters, poems, and drawings sent to us by kids and our replies to the children.
Dr. Mike Patrick: And it really covers a wide range of topics. From friendship to family and school, issues of identity and sexuality, divorce, grief, really, just the whole gamut of topics that you could think of that kids deal with in their life and that can cause them a lot of stress and anxiety, but also joy. I'm sure folks share joy with you as well.
And then I know too that as you think about significant events in the history of our country in the past 75 years, those are all topics of discussion as well, right? Like the JFK assassination and the Challenger disaster, 9/11, COVID-19, all of these things are topics that are near and dear to kid's hearts, right?
Christine French Cully: That's absolutely true. Yeah, the letters span the whole spectrum of childhood concerns, really. We get the most letters about the three most important influences on kids: family, school, and friends. And that's the majority of the letters we receive, but we do get letters about some very difficult things.
And to your point about current events, I think we often underestimate kids' interest in learning about these events that impact the nation and the world and their interest in growing up to be somebody who can do something about it. There's so much optimism in so many of these letters.
Dr. Mike Patrick: Yeah, let's talk about some of those topics that you just mentioned, the three big ones, being family, school and friendship. What is on the mind of kids as they think about family?
Christine French Cully: Well, of course, that's the single most important influence on kids. So of course, we received many letters related to it. The way we define family today is much broader than it was 75 years ago. But whether kids live in homes with two married parents, co-parents, homes that include grandparents, stepparents, LGBTQ parent, or even in households headed by single parents which is increasingly the case, family means everything to kids.
So many of the letters they write to us about cover the same ground as previous generation's letters. They write about the joys of family life, the joy of introducing a new baby into the family, or the joy of making a family vacation memory. And they write about the challenges of family life, parents who don't listen to them, pesky little brothers or little sisters, not having enough privacy. It really runs the gamut.
Dr. Mike Patrick: I can imagine, as you compare the letter from so many years ago, 75 years ago to today, some of those topics, they're the same issues, right, over and over again and then, of course all the new ones. That must really be compelling. And in the book, you actually have examples of these letters.
Christine French Cully: Oh yes, each chapter includes letters, drawings, and poems and our responses to the letters.
Dr. Mike Patrick: What about school? What are kids thinking about school and how's that changed over the years?
Christine French Cully: Well, school is so deeply embedded into childhood. It's kind of like a home away from home for a lot of kids. Most kids will spend a third of their days until age 18 in a classroom or in a private or public school. So kids write to us about school a lot.
And school, of course, has changed. But what hasn't changed is kids' desire to want to do well and to get the good grades they know their parents want them to earn. They want to please their teachers. They also write to us about test anxiety and fear of disappointing their parents and teachers. They write about peer pressure and the challenges of getting along with classmates.
School was about more than academic success. In school, kids learn not only about the world, but also about themselves and their place in the world. And they approach that very seriously.
Dr. Mike Patrick: As kids share concerns with you regarding school, some of the things that from a kid's perspective might be a concern are actually things that are important for their growth and development like homework, for example.
So I'm sure that you delicately sort of turn that around and help show them the importance of some of the things that may be a concern to them.
Christine French Cully: Absolutely. We want them to see that school was about much more than getting good grades. That school really helps them discover their strengths, learn about themselves, see where they fit in, and acquire those kind of habits, the discipline that they're going to need to solve the challenges that they're going to face in the future.
Dr. Mike Patrick: Absolutely.
Christine French Cully: They're a little young to take the long view but they get it to a surprising degree. They really do. So we always try to expand their view. And we always say to them, "Kid, you got this." Encouraging them too, leading them. Just by the virtue of the fact that they wrote us a letter to ask for help just shows so much commitment and desire to improve.
Dr. Mike Patrick: Yeah, absolutely. What about friendship? What are they saying about friendships?
Christine French Cully: Well, we all need more friends. They bring fun and laughter and camaraderie into kids' lives. But friend are so much more important than that for kids. Friends are an essential part of kids' social, emotional development. It's through friendships that kids learn who they are and begin to understand or see where they think they belong. They learn important life skills such as getting along with others and resolving conflicts.
Good friendships help kids build self-esteem and confidence. And I love the research that shows a correlation between successful childhood friendships and successful adult relationships. So friendships for parents, helping your kids have friendships, nurturing friendships, is a really important job.
But kids write to us about help. Sometimes, they need help making friends. They need advice on how to keep a friend. They need advice on how to end a friendship that may have ran its course. They write about conflicts and peer pressure, of course.
And it's, again, one of the two subjects they write to us about. Navigating the ups and downs of friendship is a big piece of the heavy lifting kids do in childhood.
Dr. Mike Patrick: Yeah, absolutely. As kids think of about family and school and friendships, whenever you had multiple people engaging with each other, emotions are going to come into play. And so how do kids deal with emotions and do they share their emotions with Highlights? And then, how do you help them deal with their emotions more easily?
Christine French Cully: Managing feelings is a big part of the work of childhood. Learning to identify their emotions, name them, understand them and learning how to express their emotions in helpful appropriate ways is so important. And kids do write to us for help with that.
That's why we think it's so important for caregivers to lean in and listen to whatever kids want to tell them. When kids are young, their concerns may seem small and trivial to us. We have the benefit of hindsight and we know that most of these things that upset children are going to work themselves out. But in the moment, they loom large in the minds of our children.
And it's important to lean in and listen to everything they want to say, even if it seems small and insignificant or trivial. Because that's how we build connection and we make it more likely that they'll come back to us later to talk about the really big things.
And kids can have big feelings, as you can see in the book. they write to us bout a lot of happy stuff.
Dr. Mike Patrick: Yeah, absolutely. We're learning that emotional intelligence is important in adulthood. And really that process of learning emotional intelligence starts at a very young age. So I love the idea that you said it's important that kids identify what they're feeling.
And then also be able to identify what others around them are feeling because that then forms behaviors. And you start to gain insight on why particular people are behaving in particular ways when you can really understand their emotions. And then you have empathy. And all this is really important for adults but it starts in childhood.
Christine French Cully: It does. And we can model for kids how they should treat others later, how we want them to treat others later. One of the ways we found to help kids to manage their feelings is when they write to us, we always want to make sure that they feel heard. So we repeat back to them what we think they've said to us. And then we try to validate their feelings because what you feel isn't wrong.
Sometimes, we do that by telling them that lots of kids have written to us about this concern. Or even we ourselves sometimes feel the same way they feel.
And then, we try to explore with them a variety of ways they might think about the situations, might think about this emotion or the way they're handling it. And of course, we always, always urge them to find a trusted adult to talk to in real time. Because we never have enough context in any given letter to give very specific advice.
Dr. Mike Patrick: One of the sections in the book is on self-improvement. And a lot of kids are hard on themselves when they're not perfect. I mean, they're really striving for perfection. Maybe their parents expect perfection from them. But I know Highlights really tries to reinforce the kids that it's okay to do your best and that may not be perfect.
Christine French Cully: That's exactly right. We received a surprising number of letters from kids who want to develop better habits or improve a skill. Of course, they want to make their parents happy. Sometimes, parents have planted this idea in them that they need to improve on the situation or that something isn't quite up to snuff.
But they also seem to understand for themselves, that doing your best, trying your hardest is key to being happy and successful in life. And of course, they also don't want to be the subject of ridicule or to disappoint the adults in their lives or embarrass themselves.
So they really do want to work to have people have a good impression of them. But we try to emphasize as well, maybe even more so, the importance of doing that for yourself.
Dr. Mike Patrick: And they share their hopes and their dreams too, correct?
Christine French Cully: Yeah. And that might be my favorite chapter in the book. I go back and forth. I have a lot of favorite chapters. But so often, when we think about dreams and in the context of kids, we're thinking about the dreams parents have for their children. Well, kids have their own hopes and dreams. And they write to us about them.
And sometimes, their hope, it might to us seem a little silly or kind of pie in the sky. Sometimes, it's a fleeting dream or an idea that has captured their attention and their imagination for the moment. But oftentimes, it's a small stepping stone to a dream or a goal that's more lasting and meaningful.
So we encourage kids to share their hopes and dreams and work, takes steps to achieve them. Sometimes, their dreams are about their own futures, but many many kids are able to see a world that's larger than themselves. And they have big dreams of making it better.
Dr. Mike Patrick: Another chapter of the book is on societal concerns and events. And that really leads us into that as they share their dreams and their hopes and how they want to change the world and make it better. They're living in a world right now where the 24-hour news cycle, there's always something bad that's on the screen if you have the news on. And I'm sure you get a lot of interesting letters regarding those events, too.
Christine French Cully: We do. Again, I think we understand kids' interest in these events. When something big happens in the world. We almost always hear from kids who are trying to process it. And over the years, as we said earlier, kids have written to us about President Kennedy's assassination, the Challenger explosion, wars, 9/11, even politics, and of course, this pandemic.
Dr. Mike Patrick: We've heard, especially over the last couple of years during the pandemic, there's been a lot more awareness about biases that we have and about disparities and the way that folks live and then access to healthcare, folks who are excluded from things based on the color of their skin or their sexual identity.
And so, these are all really hard issues for adults, let alone for kids. And these are also things that they share with you.
Christine French Cully: They do. And our mail reminds us that it's never too early to talk to kids about differences. When they're very young, kids begin internalizing all the biases that they're picking up from parents and grandparents, and teachers and peers, and even books and movies and the news.
So we hear from kids who are teased or bullied and even ostracized because of the differences they might exhibit. We hear from kids who witness these kinds of actions. And they want to help, they want to make it stop. We hear from kids who simply want to understand some of the differences they see. And so often, they tell us that they don't know if they have a safe place where they can ask their questions.
And of course, the differences they write to us about, they're related to race, religion, gender, economic status, ability, everything.
Dr. Mike Patrick: And lots of examples of these things in the book. And including the COVID-19 pandemic, I'm sure that you have had lot of letters related to events just of the last two years, right?
Christine French Cully: We have. And they're still coming in, sadly, the letters about the pandemic.
Answering the letters from kids about COVID was a different experience for those of us who've answered letters from kids for years. For the first time, we were experiencing at the same time, in largely the very same way, the same things kids all over the world were experiencing. So we find ourselves empathizing in ways we really couldn't before.
They've written to us about their confusion, what is COVID? What is the corona virus? They've written to us about their appreciation for healthcare workers and frontline workers.
They've written to us about their concerns for the health of others as well as their own health.
School, oh my gosh, at the beginning, we received so many letters from kids who were so bored. And they wanted ideas of things they could do that would be productive and that would help the family.
Dr. Mike Patrick: Yeah, absolutely. Do you have some letters to share with us here on the podcast?
Christine French Cully: Oh, I'm always happy to do that. Here's one.
"Dear Highlights, I wrote you before with a piece of art. Now, I come for advice. My dad is in the military and he's away for six months. We can't know where and it's really hard. I act up and can't calm myself. Please help. What should I do when I'm mad? I'm nervous and I'm driving my mom nuts. Please write back. I'm nine years old and I should be able to control myself. Help." And this was signed, Nervous in New Jersey.
Dr. Mike Patrick: Wow, there's really so much self-awareness there.
Christine French Cully: So much. And it really speaks to sort of the challenge of managing those feelings, those big feelings. And mom was probably nervous too and being that, the son didn't feel… Often kids write to us because they don't want to worry their own parents or they don't want to bother their parents. Or they don't want to add to their parents' burden.
I think that's really interesting. And often, when I talk to parents, some of the most thoughtful parents are the parents who feel like they're always so attentive and have this start line of communication are a little surprised by that. But I think it's true. We hear it time and time again.
Here's another. "Dear Highlights, I really get disturbed by the awful things that happen in the political and physical world. How can I make the world better without going off to war or running for president."
And we wrote back and said, "Dear Arielle, we think your attitude is wonderful. We wish everyone were willing their feelings of frustration as motivation to make things better. The world needs more people like you.
"It might be helpful to start by making a list of the things on your mind. Writing things down can help us prioritize our thoughts, make worries feel less overwhelming and more manageable, and help us map out a course of action. Once you've made a list, you can study the items one by one and think about what you'd like to focus on and how you might help.
"If pollution makes you sad, you can help out at a local community cleanup with your parents' permission or reduce the use of plastics in your life. If you're upset by people who act unkindly, you could start your own kindness campaign by saying at least ten kind things per day, especially to kids who seem to need it.
"Or if you'd like to make changes at school, perhaps it's serving in a leadership rule by running for student council or class president. You can inspire others to get involved, too.
"One person can start a ripple effect of positive change. There is a famous quote attributed to Margaret Meade, which you may find inspiring. 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.'
"When you feel sad and overwhelmed by what's going on in the world, it's important to take care of yourself, and to reach out to those who love and care about you. When we are healthy and happy ourselves, we are best able to do the work of helping make the world a better place."
Dr. Mike Patrick: Wow, that is incredible. And I just want listeners to realize, that was written for that one child. I mean, that was not written so that it could be in a book several years from then. It was really written because of a care for a child who took the time to write a letter. And this must be a full-time job, right, writing these responses to kids?
Christine French Cully: It's only a full-time job for one person who is a coordinator. And she assigns the letters to the editors who've been especially trained on how to answer them. We tried to make it a part of many editors' work because it's so beautifully informs what we do.
It really deepens our understanding of children in ways that nothing else can. It's just this ongoing authentic dialogue with children. Answering children's mail is a really good way of keeping our finger on the pulse of children.
Dr. Mike Patrick: So listeners out there, your child may have a burden right now that you maybe know about and you've talked to them about it. But this is a way that they can express themselves in written words and send those to Highlights. That may be a project that helps your child to work through whatever it is that is concerning them.
Christine French Cully: Absolutely, yes.
Dr. Mike Patrick: Well, we really appreciate you stopping by and sharing the book with us. This is one of those books that, really, I can't say enough good things about it. And once you open it up, you just get drawn in to reading these letters and these stories and what's on the hearts and minds of kids. And so really, it's a fantastic piece of work.
We will put a link, of course, to the book in the show notes, so folks can find it easily over at pediacast.org, for this episode, 510. And then, of course, we'll also put links to Highlights for Children Magazine so folks can find that easily as well.
It's always a pleasure when you stop by. So once again, Christine French Cully, editor-in-chief of Highlights for Children, thanks for joining us.
Christine French Cully: Thanks for having me, Dr. Mike.
Dr. Mike Patrick: We are back with just enough time to say thanks once again to all of you for taking time out of your day and making PediaCast a part of it. Really do appreciate that.
Also, thanks to our guest this week, Christine French Cully, editor-in-chief of Highlights for Children and author of the Dear Highlights book.
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