10/24/2013 11:54 am ET Updated Dec 24, 2013

5 Lessons Learned From Listening to Kids

As editor of Highlights magazine, I get tens of thousands of letters from kids every year. Following the tradition of the magazine's founders, I, along with my fellow editors, respond to each of those letters. This practice is one of the most profound ways we learn about kids and expand our sense of what it means to be a child today. For the last five years, the magazine has polled our readers in our "State of the Kid" survey to more formally understand their perspectives on a range of issues about their lives and how they view their future and the future of our world.

After reading thousands of letters and e-mails and after sifting through reams of data, here is what I have learned from kids:

1. Kids are listening to us.

One thing that we have seen in the results over and over again is that kids are very tuned into the things that their parents worry about. This is reflected in the safety concerns and financial worries they have shared with us over the years. When we asked kids directly what their parents were most concerned about, the most prevalent answers were safety and money. "I think they worry about safety and losing everything we own. America is in debt," said one 8-year-old boy. When they share with us their parents' concerns over safety, they are often graphic in their understanding of our worst fears as parents. "They worry about me being stolen and killed," wrote a 6-year-old girl.

It's a reminder to us that attitudes are more "caught" than taught and that kids are not only listening to what we say, but are also picking up on how we feel.

2. We are still saying different things to boys and girls about their future.

I've been consistently surprised by the differences in girls' and boys' responses on some questions. In the first year of the survey, we asked about chores. Seventy-three percent of girls reported doing chores at home, compared to only 65 percent of boys. In 2010, we asked kids what they liked best about themselves. Girls responded by naming a physical attribute; boys named their smarts or their abilities. And when we asked kids what they wanted to be when they grew up, we saw significant differences. Boys' top five career aspirations included becoming a doctor, a scientist, or an engineer. The girls' list included becoming teachers, artists, singers, and models. When kids wrote us to say what girls were better at and what boys were better at, we heard some alarming assumptions in answers such as girls were better at, "Being pretty" and "Having a lot of pink." Or "Cleaning houses, because boys don't sweep very well like girls do."

These results have been an arresting reminder to us that kids are receiving a steady stream of messages from their world about gender, and not always the ones we might wish.

3. Kids are optimists, with the power to inspire us all.

Right in the middle of our recent government shutdown, we were inspired to hear from kids that the vast majority of them (79.9 percent) believe they live in the best country in the world. And most of them (70.5 percent) believe in the ability of government leaders to tackle most of the country's problems. They have ambitious hopes for our future -- envisioning flying cars and space travel. More than one-third of surveyed kids told us they believe they will travel to space in their lifetime.

If we let them, kids can help us curb our own cynicism and invigorate our efforts to create the bright future they imagine.

4. Kids want to change the world.

Despite their optimism, children are not ignorant of the challenges we face both domestically and as a global community. Among the letters sent to Highlights each year, many of them detail kids' worries about the environment, the economy, and our country, but many also include their ideas for creating a better world. Among the most common things children have told us they would like to do are eliminate pollution (11 percent), end war (10 percent), and protect animals (9 percent). They write us with their ideas for new laws to improve our country -- ranging from mandatory ice cream breaks to better services for the hungry and homeless.

Kids want to be a part of making the world a better place, and, indeed, we find their energy, creativity, and ideas serve to propel us forward.

5. Listening to kids is one of the best ways to nurture them.

The biggest lesson we learn each year from the kids who write us and respond to our surveys is that we are better for having listened. To listen -- to truly listen -- is not just to hear children. To truly listen -- to actively listen to kids -- is to be fully in the moment and to focus on finding meaning in what they are saying, or perhaps in what they are not saying. When kids speak, and we listen, it enriches our relationships, and it empowers us all.

More information about Highlights' State of the Kid report can be found here.