Why We Show Kids Wearing Masks in Highlights Magazines

“Why are the children shown in my child’s magazine wearing masks?” This is a question some parents of our readers are asking us in emails and letters and on our social sites. They also ask, “Have you consulted with medical professionals about this decision?” “Why aren’t you being more protective of our children, instead of rubbing their noses in this awful mess?” And even “Does Highlights have a political agenda?”

Many months into the pandemic and as this “awful mess” in the U.S. reaches crisis proportion, we feel it’s important to share how we arrived at the decision to depict children wearing masks when we show them in situations that would require taking that precaution.

Although we know many readers save our magazines to read and reread, a magazine is different from a book, in part because its shelf life is shorter. That’s part of the purpose of a magazine: to deliver reading material that is fresh and new each month—content that reflects the reader’s current world.

Last spring, when the pandemic hit in earnest and much of the country was staying safer at home, our readers let us know that their current reality wasn’t being depicted in Highlights and High Five. They wondered why the children in illustrations and photos weren’t wearing masks or why families weren’t shown practicing social distancing. “Our kids need to know that they are not alone in this,” one reader’s mother told us. “My child expected Highlights to acknowledge and support her efforts to be responsible,” wrote another. We wrote back and explained that because of our long lead times and the suddenness with which the world changed, it would take a few months before we could show on our pages these new, important health practices.

And when we were finally able to begin incorporating these ideas into Highlights, we started to receive complaints of a different sort. We heard from other loving parents who took a different view of the issue. They worried that we were frightening their children and trying to normalize behavior they didn’t feel should be normalized. They objected to our portrayal of what they felt were unnecessary practices. A few subscribers sent us links to sites discussing the wearing of masks and disseminating points of view at odds with science.

We wrote back to these parents too, explaining that we believe children deserve to see the world as it really is and that our current reality, when properly presented, doesn’t frighten kids. We explained that we see our magazines as more than simply entertainment. We work to create magazines that parents will find useful as they do their job of helping kids make sense of what they’re seeing in the world around them. We create content that inspires kids to be their best selves and suggests a call-to-action to kids who, despite their youth, can make a difference.

As we, as a society, try to come together and function as safely as we can during this health crisis, we want to share what we learned from the children’s health experts we consulted about our editorial approach to the pandemic. Here are four key points.

 

Wearing masks is one of the best defenses against COVID-19, and kids need to wear them too.

Medical experts told us that children ages 2 and up should wear masks in public, provided they are physically able to take their mask off themselves. Data shows that simply wearing a mask can decrease transmission of COVID-19 by 80 percent. When you combine that with at least 3 to 6 feet of distance, it can decrease transmission by 95 percent.

Dr. Tanya Altmann, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, told us, “Everyone, children included, will need to wear masks until we get this virus under control. The vaccine will help with that, but it will take time to get enough people vaccinated and see the COVID case numbers come down to where we can stop wearing masks.”

 

Nearly all children can wear masks safely.

Some of the parents we heard from said they worry that mask wearing is detrimental to their kids’ development because kids need to see whole faces. According to Dr. Dipesh Navsaria, a practicing pediatrician and expert in children’s literacy, there is no data to back up this concern, and in fact, researchers worldwide who study children’s development of facial recognition agree. “Kids see faces at home—the faces of their family, faces in photographs, and on television and in books.” He said that when kids see faces partially covered in masks, they easily compensate, relying more on voice, tone, and eyes to communicate. “The concern is only valid in a few particular cases,” he said, “such as children who are deaf or speech-delayed.”

Jennifer Miller, M.Ed.,—founder of Confident Parents Confident Kids, researcher, and specialist in kids’ social-emotional development—agreed. She added that parents can help their kids compensate by coaching them to “look for the smiles in people’s eyes and even practice communicating with masks on.”

When we teach our children to wear masks,” she said, “we are doing more than protecting their health and the health of others. We are also helping them develop valuable social-emotional skills that are vital in school and in life—skills related to self-management, social awareness, and responsible decision-making.”

 

With few exceptions, wearing a mask is not difficult for children.

A preschool or school-age child can learn that doctors believe they will stay safe from the virus and keep others safe by wearing a mask. “If parents tell kids in simple terms that masks help protect us all, and if they see other kids wearing masks, kids see that they can do that,” said Dr. Navsaria. He believes that the perception that kids have trouble wearing masks is more about kids’ ability to pick up their parents’ fears and disappointments. The biggest issue he sees in getting kids to wear masks is parents’ own reactions. “It’s more about their parents’ sense of loss and sadness,” he said. “We are mourning the loss of innocence for our kids.” He reminds parents to be aware that they may be projecting their fear and disappointment, which may be upsetting to their children.

“If anything, children may bring a positive bias to masks, since dress up and costumes have long been a part of children’s play,” said Jennifer Miller. “However, if a parent begrudgingly wears one or expresses disgust or anger with the mask or talks about it as a nuisance, then a child is likely to view it in the same way. If parents or caregivers discuss the importance of the mask based on good science to keep us all safe, children will perceive it similarly.”

Dr. Altmann believes that kids across the country and around the world have been doing fine wearing masks. “They still can learn, recognize their friends, interact, and play while wearing masks. They forget it’s on their face, and it just becomes the norm after a week and doesn’t bother them.”

Dr. Altmann said that her five-year-old daughter adjusted to mask wearing in part by putting masks on her stuffed animals. “I tell kids, ‘A mask is like a seatbelt. It helps protect you. Right now there is a virus going around that is making people sick, so doing things like wearing a mask, staying apart from friends, and washing hands can help keep us from getting the virus.’”

 

Even kids who don’t wear masks benefit from seeing other kids wear masks.

A few parents felt that showing kids in masks was meaningless to their children who were living in circumstances that didn’t seem to require mask wearing. We brought this up with Dr. Navsaria, who also holds an advanced degree in children’s librarianship, and he talked about mirrors and windows—a metaphor often used in conversations about the importance of diverse books. When books and magazines show kids who look like them, doing things they also do, those books and magazines provide kids with a mirror, he said, reinforcing kids’ sense of belonging. And when literature shows mask-wearing kids to readers who don’t wear masks, it gives those readers a window, allowing them to look out from their own experience and see a more realistic depiction of what the world looks like for others. Providing both mirrors and windows is one way we help build empathy in kids.

These recommendations align with the Highlights mission of helping kids be their best selves, and we’ve used them to inform our work. Like all of you, we look forward to the day when health officials say that the coronavirus is no longer such a serious threat. But in the meantime, Highlights will continue to depict children (and sometimes anthropomorphic animals representing children) wearing face coverings in situations that would require them.

For more tips on mask use for kids, visit HealthyChildren.org.

Christine French Cully

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....