Mary Katharine Ham

I must admit my outrage trigger is not as sensitive as some people’s. But, you would think, when it comes to child abuse, I’d get upset pretty quickly, right?

And yet, when people started yelling “child abuse,” “child neglect,” and “child labor” over CBS’s new series, “Kid Nation,” I just couldn’t get that angry.

If you’ve somehow managed to miss the story—which would be quite an accomplishment at this point—CBS had 40 kids out in a New Mexico ghost town this summer to film a reality show in which the children, ages 8-15, were to build their own society, compete for prizes, bicker, befriend, and of course, be filmed.

CBS is now under fire because, due to some serious mistakes on the network’s part (and allegations that it tried to conceal those mistakes by deflecting inspectors), the production may have fallen afoul of New Mexico’s child labor laws. There were also four injuries on set. One little girl, whose mother has filed a complaint against CBS, was splashed with grease while cooking. Three other kids were treated after ingesting small amounts of bleach from an unmarked bottle. None of the injuries were serious, and they were all treated promptly.

So, why am I not outraged? Isn’t this a blatant example of our Hollywood-ized culture asking kids to grow up too quickly and endangering them for a cheap TV thrill? It’s obvious, isn’t it? Nah, I don’t think so.

First, there’s the question of the law. The state’s attorney general is investigating, and if CBS broke the law, it will pay the price. And, it should.

CBS’s mistake is amplified by the fact that it seems “Kid Nation” could have been exempted from the child labor laws it’s now accused of breaking had it applied to be exempted as New Mexico’s summer camps do each year. If it weren’t for the legal loophole, Boy Scout camps like the rugged Philmont could not operate because carrying wood, cleaning campsites, and the like would be considered labor.

CBS messed up, but the chorus of folks calling the show “revolting” and “abusive” is a little much. The headlines are fraught with pathos and hand-wringing hell-in-a-handbasket predictions for our society: “Who’s to blame for Kid Nation?,” “Who thought this was a good idea?,” “Kid Nation could spell disaster for reality genre.”

So what did the kids do in “Kid Nation?” They carried water, cleaned outhouses, cooked their own food, and attended town meetings. They governed and bartered, identified problems and fixed them.

Each of their parents signed a contract that allowed them to participate in the extreme experience. Another batch of headlines has screamed, “What were the parents thinking?” Here’s what one parent had to say:

Mary Katharine Ham

Mary Katharine Ham is editor-at-large of, a contributor to Townhall Magazine.

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