'Kid Nation' or grown-up fantasy 

It’s an adults-only world

It’s never really about the kids. That’s what first came to mind the other night while watching Kid Nation. This is the CBS “reality” show where a bus full of kids, ages 8-15, are plunked down in a faux ghost town in the New Mexican desert for 40 days. The idea is that we will watch as the kids (three of whom are from here in Indiana) create their own society or, as they often say to one another by way of bucking each other up, “bring this town back to life!”

The production has apparently aroused the suspicions of authorities in New Mexico, who are trying to determine whether or not any labor laws were broken in the making of the series. Evidently several kids were injured. One reportedly sprained his arm, a few others accidentally drank some bleach and someone else was burned by hot grease.

The kids were all paid $5,000 to participate. But first their parents had to sign a contract. This contract used words like “inherently dangerous” to describe the experience the kids were about to undergo. It talked about “uncontrolled hazards and conditions that may cause serious bodily injury, illness or death.” If anything bad happened to a kid while living through this summer camp version of Lord of the Flies, the parents signed away the right to hold CBS responsible.

These kids were going to be on national television, after all. Can anything be cooler than that?

But the kids themselves are the least part of Kid Nation. What’s really on display here are the sorts of delusional fantasies adults routinely impose on children in order to justify grown-up selfishness.

A couple of these fantasies serve as the premise for Kid Nation. The first is that kids are inherently wise enough to govern themselves. While it’s difficult to argue with the idea that we grown-ups have done a thorough job of screwing up this world, the suggestion that children have the answers to our problems is the grossest kind of escapism.

It turns out, though, that the producers of Kid Nation aren’t really interested in seeing if the kids they’ve recruited for this exercise can come up with alternative ways of living together. The producers rig the game from the start by pre-appointing four kids to be a kind of governing council (they fly this quartet in by helicopter to plant the seeds of class envy and resentment in the rest of the group) and, worse, by charging the council with the responsibility of awarding a $20,000 prize to one kid per week. You can practically see the ears twitch and nostrils flair on some of the kids as they pick up the feral scent of competition this prize, a solid gold star, no less, injects into the dusty air.   

These wrinkles in the social fabric of Kid Nation underscore the fact that we adults are less interested in kids for their own sake than we are in seeing our kids act like miniature versions of ourselves. From our adult point of view, kids are smartest when they agree with us. We may tell ourselves that kids represent the future; in fact, we want them to reinforce the present.

We also want to believe that our kids will thrive regardless of the way we adults live our lives. The other fantasy at the core of Kid Nation is the Peter Pan notion that kids really don’t need parents. Part of the deal for this show is that the kids will live together without adult supervision. Though Kid Nation would have us believe this is something extraordinary, a kind of Huck Finn dream come true, it is actually an everyday fact of life for countless American kids.

Yes, once upon a time the idea of lighting out for the frontier might have been catnip for many kids. But today a lot of these kids have parents who have to pull two jobs to make ends meet, or whose employers want them on call at night or on weekends. Let’s face it: Some kids have parents who would rather spend their time with other adults than with their own children. I remember a fellow parent once telling me she couldn’t wait until her kid was 12, because then the kid could take care of himself, er, be “independent.” This meant the parent would be free to do more things she wanted to do. Is it really the kids who want to be on their own — or is it their parents’ dream to cut them loose without feeling any guilt?

We grown-ups are infatuated with the romance of childhood. We wonder at its fresh-faced innocence and are entertained by its spontaneity. Then we go back to doing whatever we damn well please. The name of the show may be Kid Nation, but these kids are growing up in an adults-only world. 

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David Hoppe

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