An iconic children’s publisher stands up for family diversity
As a kid, I looked forward to visiting my pediatrician, not because of his warm demeanor or the helium balloon I would earn for cooperating during my exam, but because his waiting-room magazine rack overflowed with issues of Highlights magazine. While I thumbed through the pages, looking for my favorite feature, Hidden Pictures, I was oblivious to the magazine’s progressive editorial policies, recently targeted in a smear campaign by the anti-LGBTQ watchdog group OneMillionMoms.com.
Here’s the backstory: For 70 years, Highlights editors have worked to promote inclusivity, “in a way that resonates with today’s kids.” But recently, Kristina Wertz, a subscriber and lesbian mom, posted the following message on the company’s Facebook page, sending editors of the iconic magazine on a soul-searching mission:
Our one-year-old daughter loves Highlights! She carries her magazines all over the house and we read them countless times a day. One of the reasons we appreciate Hello is the diversity represented—families of all races, interracial families, and grandparents. We are consistently disappointed, however, in the complete lack of same-sex parents in Hello magazine. I think a lot about the things that create culture—the subtle and not so subtle messages that our kids get about how the world works. Since becoming a parent, I feel keenly aware of the messages kids’ books send to tiny minds. There is a deep need for books that positively reflect back the diversity of the world around us, and I hope that Highlights embraces that diversity, because we would love to keep it in our little one’s life as she grows.
Many people raising children in nontraditional family structures—such as Solo Moms and LGBTQ parents—have experienced this lack of positive representation in the media. We long for our children to see their family experiences mirrored in the stories they read, songs they hear, and shows they watch.
To us, our families are simply that: families. What’s the big deal? But some people do not consider us families; they consider us a moral or a political “issue.” Therefore, a company choosing to represent our families in literature, film, television, music, or advertisements risks a backlash from parents who would rather their children didn’t know our families exist. Some companies, like Zales, J. C. Penney, and Target, have stepped up and taken the risk. Would Highlights for Children [the company] do the same?
In Highlights’s first response on Facebook to Wertz’s inquiry, we see a company influenced by the notion that LGBTQ families are an “issue” to be explained:
Hi Kristina, thanks for your message!
We understand your wish to see your family’s situation represented in Highlights Hello. For much of our readership, the topic of same-sex families is still new, and parents are still learning how to approach the subject with their children, even the very little ones. We believe that parents know best when their family is ready to open conversation around the topic of same-sex families.
Please be assured that it is very important to us that every child see his or her “face” in the pages of our magazines at some point—that every child feels that Highlights is truly for them. We will continue to think deeply about inclusion —specifically, how to address it in developmentally appropriate ways for our broad audience. Your note is a good reminder of how important it is.
After a barrage of comments on Facebook from readers calling on Highlights to represent diverse families, the editors acknowledged their own learning curve:
Thank you for all of this feedback. Highlights has a long history of inclusion, and we are always evolving as a company. We couldn’t agree more that diversity should be celebrated, and we strive to do that. Our mission is to help children become their best selves, and you’re right, a big part of that is showing them that families are families no matter what they look like. It has always been a discussion of “how” and “when”—not “if”—Highlights would feature [an] LGBTQ family in our magazines. We’re having many discussions internally and thinking deeply thanks to your messages.
This internal, deep thinking continued, and on October 17, 2016, Highlights addressed the struggle on its website:
For those of you who know us—who read Highlights magazine as a child or have given it to a child—you know we have a long history of promoting inclusion and sensitivity. How to do this better and in a way that resonates with today’s kids is an ongoing dialogue in our editorial meetings—and has been for 70 years. Our mission never changes: To help kids become their best selves—curious, creative, confident, and caring. But we are constantly evolving. It may seem to some that we are evolving too slowly.
We want to reiterate that we believe all families matter. We know that there are many ways to build a family, and that love is the essential “ingredient.” This conversation has helped us see that we can be more reflective of all kinds of families in our publications. We are committed to doing so as we plan future issues.
Finally, on November 8, Highlights announced its evolving inclusivity policy:
When we represent families (or any character) in the magazines, we make it a point to include diversity. We strive to be diverse in every way; the goal is not to specifically call attention to diversity but to represent it within the context of the magazine the way we always have to help kids understand that while differences exist, we are all actually more alike than different. Whether incorporating families headed up by a grandparent or single parent, or including adoptive families, blended families, same-sex families, multi-generational families, and multi-racial families, our depiction of families is in support of our mission to help children become their best selves and understand that all families, including theirs, are important.
Highlights for Children heard the call for representation, considered the possibilities, and revitalized its inclusivity policy, and for that, those of us who value family diversity applaud the company. Predictably, however, the company’s announcement has raised the hackles of social conservatives.
OneMillionMoms.com, a division of the notoriously anti-LGBTQ American Family Association, has set its sights on Highlights, demanding the magazine disrupt its 70-year commitment to diversity.
Although many of us may agree with OneMillionMoms.com’s mission “to stand against the immorality, violence, vulgarity and profanity the entertainment media is throwing at your children,” do we really believe that Highlights’s commitment to representing family diversity falls into one of those categories? Do we really need to say, “My family is not immoral, violent, vulgar, or profane?”
This is the challenge LGBTQ families and Solo Mom families can face in socially conservative environments. This is the attitude publications such as Highlights are helping eradicate by representing diverse families next to traditional families in their magazines. When LGBTQ parents and Solo Moms show up in their stories, with our many similarities as apparent as our few differences, perhaps people will begin to see there’s nothing vulgar about a lesbian mom raising her children; there’s nothing immoral about a Solo Mom parenting on her own.
Perhaps that is what an organization such as OneMillionMoms.com fears most—that our families will appear . . . normal?
Highlights’s inclusivity policy may or may not change people’s thinking about nontraditional families, but it will certainly benefit the children of LGBTQ parents and kids being raised in other nontraditional family structures, like children of Solo Moms, adopted children, and children living with grandparents or aunts or uncles. These kids will see that their families are recognized, represented, and respected alongside all others. Thank you, Highlights, for taking a stand.
Action alert: If you stand in support of Highlights for Children’s inclusive editorial policies, please let the editors know. You can voice your support by calling the editorial office at 1-570-253-1080 or by e-mailing the magazine.
Cheryl Dumesnil, ESME’s LGBTQ Resource Guide, is an author, educator, writing coach, all-around do-gooder, and one of two moms separately coparenting two amazing boys. You can follow her on Twitter at @cheryladumesnil.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.