Children are like sponges. They soak up everything from languages and mathematics to bacterial infections. And just like sponges, it all festers inside them until they are culture-laden stinky creatures, eager to spread whatever they've absorbed in the form of color wheels, multiplication tables and occasionally some pink eye. Sometimes, however, children will accidentally absorb wisdom they can't process or apply, a heartbreaking wisdom that no one should be saddled with until they are adults. I'm guessing kids today learn these lessons from the lawless, unforgiving world of the Internet, but when I was a child, we learned them from Highlights magazine.
This was our 4chan.
Most people already associate Highlights with anxiety, given that the magazine only seems to exist in the waiting rooms of doctors and dentists. But some of us actually had subscriptions as children, our parents erroneously believing that they were helping to shape our minds with puzzles and word jumbles, oblivious to the heart-wrenching truths we were too young to articulate but old enough to feel. I can't say for certain whether most of what Highlights taught me was intentional, but with a slogan like "Fun With a Purpose," I have a hard time believing they did anything that wasn't deliberate. Here are the five most sobering truths Highlights magazine ever taught me.
#5. Goofus and Gallant
Lesson: Some People Will Be Terrible Forever
In nearly every issue of Highlights magazine since 1948, Goofus and Gallant have instructed kids on the rules of common courtesy. Gallant has always exemplified the cornerstones of social etiquette, while Goofus has remained a shockingly unrepentant dick for over 60 years. Highlights created the characters to illustrate both the right and the wrong way to interact with the rest of humanity, but the fact that they use the same two characters to make their point every time indirectly teaches a secondary lesson as well: Yes, manners are always important, but there are also plenty of kids and adults out there who will just never fucking get it.
Goofus won't address women directly because it makes his mouth feel filthy.
Highlights taught us that we will inevitably encounter people who are just permanently despicable (they are easy to spot, thanks to their ruffled hair). No amount of arguing, pleading or logic will ever make them better human beings because they lack the capacity to understand anything other than self-interest. Goofuses will never understand why they're terrible, and so they will go on being terrible forever. Worst of all, if the comic is any indication, they will live parallel lives to the Gallants, enjoying all the same opportunities throughout their lifetime with no foreseeable consequences for being awful.
There has never been a reckoning in 60 years.
Highlights is essentially asking us to be kind despite the fact that impulsive, mean people will be leading the same lives as us minus all of the social responsibilities. Even for adults, that's a tough pill to swallow.
#4. Double Check, aka Spot the Differences
Lesson: Your Mind Will Betray You
Double Check offers two nearly identical pictures and asks the reader to find all the differences between them. It encourages kids to approach everything with a critical eye and to focus on the details, regardless of how small or inconsequential they may seem. But whoever has been in charge of creating these brainteasers for the past few decades has grossly overestimated the sleuthing abilities of 7-year-olds. On the Highlights Kids website, you can test your ability by identifying all 24 discrepancies in a picture like the one below in under two minutes. I will warn you, should you try it now even as an adult, you will undoubtedly fail.
The true lesson of Double Check isn't in honing your awareness until you find all of the differences in the pictures; it's in hunting for the final two or three differences and never seeing them, ever. The puzzle teaches us the unnerving lesson that we will never be able to fully trust our own brains. It's called inattentional blindness, and the game is just a cruel exploitation of an affliction from which we all suffer. Cracked has mentioned it before, but the abbreviated version is that we are so overloaded with visual input every day that our brain only chooses to pay attention to the small percentage it considers relevant, and then guesses at the rest. As a result, we can miss clowns riding on unicycles right in front of us, we can be in mid-conversation with strangers and not realize that they've switched genders or we can spend hours looking at two illustrations of a ski mountain without realizing that the girl holding a snowboard is wearing gloves in one picture and mittens in the other (you're welcome). Ultimately, brains are designed to lose at the Double Check game, which gives kids everywhere their first taste of what it feels like to be betrayed by their own minds.
#3. Guess the Object
Lesson: When You Look too Closely at Anything, It Will Stop Making Sense
On the surface, Guess the Object is as simple as looking at an up-close photo of something common and trying to figure out what it is. But the deeper message is one most kids won't understand until years later when they get high for the first time and repeat a single word until it loses all meaning. Guess the Object always made me very uneasy as a child because it defied a logic I had always relied on: The closer you examine something, the better you're supposed to understand it. Instead, the game forces you to see alien worlds in hairbrushes and black holes in the tips of ballpoint pens.
Getty And boobs. Just about everything can be boobs.
The game is teaching kids that focusing too hard on even an ordinary object can ruin their understanding of it. What's worse, no one is really sure how to determine when focus starts becoming detrimental; we have no metric for that. We're all just sort of guessing our entire lives at how to continue seeing the forest through the trees, and for a kid that's a terrifying insight.