In Defense of 'Kid Nation'

Posted: Aug 28, 2007 12:01 AM
In Defense of 'Kid Nation'

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:

“I know I speak for most of the parents when I say we are just mystified by this uproar and I guess it’s because people like to read sensational headlines,” Lori said.

Lori told Access that she and the other parents are angry that media outlets, to whom they have granted interviews, continue to focus on the negative. “Every time they show them, they cut out anything that might put the show in a good light, and it was such an amazing experience for these kids,” she said. “We really are so mystified by it. My daughter has nothing but great things to say about it. They had the time of their lives. I’m perplexed.”

I don’t think I’m crazy to wager that probably more of the parents feel this way than not.

If you flip through the kids’ bios on the “Kid Nation” page, you’ll find they’re from all over the country. They’re thoughtful, they’re interesting, they’re country and city, red state and blue state. I particularly like a 10-year-old girl who cited Jimmy Carter as one of the worst presidents because he “gave away the Panama Canal.” So young, yet so wise.

They don’t act like the children of stage parents just rarin’ to get their kids into any TV production, no matter what the risks. They seem to be the children of intelligent, sensible parents who are capable of reading a contract and thought “Kid Nation” could be a once-in-a-lifetime, rewarding experience.

As for the injuries—stuff happens. Being outdoors, being active, and doing work are inherently risky prospects. A million kids and parents undertake such risks every summer when they take part in the tradition that is summer camp. When I went to camp, I dug my own latrine and cooked over an open fire. I was 10. When my brothers went to camp, they hiked down and back up the Grand Canyon in one day—a hike that has been known to kill those ill-prepared for it. They were 13. Some kids fly fish. Some kids do hours of drills and soccer. Some kids canoe through Minnesota’s 1,000 lakes.

Some kids get poison ivy. Some kids break a leg. Some kids get dehydrated. Tragically, some kids even drown. It happens every summer.

The idea that the kids of “Kid Nation” were truly as unsupervised as the show’s advertising suggests—40 kids. 40 days. No adults.—is ludicrous, but there sure are a lot of people out there who are suddenly utterly credulous of the claims of reality TV producers.

In fact, according to producers and in true reality-show style, the show is not exactly what it purports to be. “Kid Nation” had pediatricians, paramedics, lawyers, child psychologists, and plenty of cameramen on set at all times, according to CBS. Children were evaluated and asked every day whether they wanted to continue on the show. They had the option to leave whenever they wanted.

In the end, the lawyers will work out the legalities. Should the kids have been paid as “actors” or “reality show participants?” Were they doing “work” or attending “camp?” If CBS broke the law, it will pay a price, as it should.

The show, debuting Sept. 19, will give us a better idea of what the kids went through, and America will decide whether it wants to watch.

In our risk-averse culture, some tend to think any kid not helmeted, medicated, and insulated within an inch of his life is risking his life. Most kids will tell you it’s when they’re cut loose and rough-and-tumble that they’re having the times of their lives.

To me, “Kid Nation” looks like it entailed the same risks and hard work of some serious summer camping. To call it “child abuse” is more than a bit…outrageous.