|Commentary: A father?s reflections on ?Kid Nation?|
The CBS reality TV show "Kid Nation" presents what happens when
40 children, ages 8 to 15, are left on their own to create a new town in
the New Mexico desert. A UMNS photo courtesy of CBS Television.
A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. Steve Horswill-Johnston*
Oct. 1, 2007
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,
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
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 Rev. Steve Horswill-Johnston
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
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."
“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
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
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.
“In 'Kid Nation,' the town's chapel is used only by the town council as a meeting place. No spiritual reflection occurs there.”
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
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
*Horswill-Johnston is director of communications and brand strategy for the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.
News media contact: Linda Green, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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