By Steve Horswill-Johnston
A UMNS Commentary
My two kids and I recently watched the first episode of the new reality TV show "Kid Nation" on CBS. We were instantly hooked. At least, at first.
When I first heard about the show, I thought it was a neat idea that kids would be the central characters rather than the "Survivor" model of cast members in their 20s and 30s with one being voted off the show each week.
The premise is simple: 40 young people, ages 8 to 15, are "left" for 40 days in a New Mexico "ghost town." I was attracted by just the shear oddity of it. It had a unique appeal. I was genuinely interested in the sociological dimensions. Plus, I felt I could watch it with my kids. It's one of the few primetime TV shows that doesn't have the letters CSI in the title.
The children arrive on a bus from all walks of life to a deserted town called Bonanza City. Their job is to bring the town back to life. And four children have been chosen to be the town council, the leaders. The children have to do everything - cook, clean, haul water and care for their bodies and each other. The children are eventually divided into four groups. The show's host secretly gives the town council a star made of pure gold and tells the council to give one of these stars, worth more than $20,000, to one kid they think is exemplary in their ability to help the whole group.
Like all reality TV, "Kid Nation" is only kind of real. It relies on a sense of morbid fascination in all of us - peeking into where you're not supposed to, seeing people's dirty laundry. It also requires a suspension of reality. In this case, the kids are not really alone in the desert. In actuality, the producers claim, there were more than 250 adults on the set, taking care of blisters, helping wipe tears, fixing sprained ankles. There was a full-time EMT, a psychologist, two pediatricians and a children's tour guide (I'm not sure what for), along with the TV crew. So, it's really a warped sense of reality: Kids are alone in the desert, but not really alone, and yet they feel alone. Isn't reality TV weird?
Not a church retreat
My own kids are 8 and 12. They were glued to every moment, such as the scene where one of the leaders expresses his frustrations of trying to lead the group, or when they tried to cook their first meal, or when the oldest, a teenager, picks on a leader for his inability to correctly lead. They were especially entranced by seeing kids their age whose eyes are filled with tears, such as when one of the 40 was homesick.
My enthrallment stopped - and my ability to see the show for what it really was - began when the youngest child (the same age as my youngest) decides he wants to go home because "this is too hard and I'm too young to be here."
It was then I woke up.
We're not supposed to put an 8-year-old in that situation in real life, let alone for our entertainment. Ultimately, he was crying for our entertainment.
Questions starting coming to me: Is it wise to put children on display for TV ratings? Is this child labor? Should children be handed $20,000 for being the "best"? Do I have a responsibility to help interpret the show to my children, or just stop watching it and call for its cancellation? I started Googling the show's title and discovered the program is facing potential child labor lawsuits.
I am a Christian and a father. I interpret my primary role to care for my children's spiritual wellbeing. In "Kid Nation," the town's chapel is used only by the town council as a meeting place. No spiritual reflection occurs there. Camping is one of the best places to discover your spirituality. But this is TV, not a church retreat.
Kids need grownups
You can bet that not even for a potential mega-buck gold star would I consider my child being left alone, even with a TV crew, with 39 other kids in a desert for 40 days.
The question if kids should be left alone to fend for themselves has already been answered many times over. The classic William Golding novel Lord of the Flies carefully explored this premise. Kids need us.
I'm not writing off watching the next episode. Frankly, as much as I was disgusted by the "commodifying" of children, it presented an opportunity to connect with my kids. And those times don't come along often. We had the best discussion in several months following the show. And, much to my surprise, even my 8-year-old son caught the stupidity of reality TV.
He said, "Dad, you can relax. You know there's a ton of adults running the cameras, right?"
"Oh, of course," I said.
So, we're a "Kid Nation" family, I guess. We know all the warts and laugh at them. We don't support the show so much as use it in ways the producers never guessed. We make fun of it and then have deep spiritual discussions.
Steve Horswill-Johnston serves as director of communications and brand strategy for the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship based in Nashville, Tenn.