Kid Nation: it's not exactly William Golding

Many feared that CBS’s reality TV show would create a ‘Lord of the Flies’ situation. In fact it has an army of mollycoddling adults off camera.

Even before its premiere on CBS last week, America’s new ‘reality’ TV show, Kid Nation, had parents and TV critics alike dusting off their copies of Lord of The Flies and scrutinising the show’s unusually scant promotional material.

Kid Nation has an intriguing premise. It involves 40 children with 40 days to do what adults could not: create a working society in the ghost town of Bonanza City, New Mexico. Aimed as much at adults as their kids, the show is intended to play on the tantalising notion that children are a purer, unspoiled version of us while at the same time exploiting our dread that it could all go horribly wrong and end in some Goldingesque fiasco. At least, that seems to have been the idea. Not surprisingly, the thing that grabbed the headlines, and captured the public’s imagination, wasn’t so much what the children would do when left to their own devices, but the fact that they would be left unsupervised at all.

It should be noted that, in this case, ‘unsupervised’ means left to get on with it while an army of adults, including a film crew, medical staff, a nutritionist, chef and child psychologist, mill around just off camera. But in today’s climate of intensive, hyper-involved parenting, just the mere suggestion that the children were left alone was enough to generate a controversy and a major headache for CBS and the show’s producers.

The makers of Kid Nation have been variously accused of violating local child labour laws, not paying participants enough, and abuse and neglect after several children suffered minor injuries in the course of filming. CBS has struggled with skittish advertisers, and judging by the first evening’s advert for a product designed to test for vaginal infections at home, it’s all gone slightly off the rails.

When a copy of the agreement participants signed, which released CBS and its producers from responsibility for injury or death, appeared on the internet, the parents of the children involved bore the brunt of the criticism. They were portrayed as naive at best. Usually they were just ‘bad’ parents. Brenda Mendenhall, the mother of 10-year-old Cody, laments: ‘People were saying that anyone who would allow their child to do this needed to go to parenting classes.’ (1) More subtle, but perhaps more damning, was writer Meghan Daum’s suggestion in the Los Angeles Times: ‘Now that the culture of celebrity worship spans several generations, and because it’s a biological imperative for parents to want for their children what they couldn’t attain for themselves, it makes perfect sense that some may want to see their kids on reality shows more than they want them becoming doctors.’ (2)

The show opens with a panoramic, aerial shot of Bonanza City in New Mexico. It’s the quintessential ghost town with tumbleweeds and a dusty Main Street. If it’s reminiscent of a Hollywood western, it is probably because you’ve seen it all before, literally. Bonanza City is, in fact, a film set built on the ruins of the original abandoned mining town and used as a location in many films, including Silverado, Young Guns and the TV mini series Lonesome Dove.

Jonathan Karsh, the show’s presenter, informs us that the pioneers who built the original Bonanza City failed through a lack of leadership and will. Forty new pioneers will try to make the town work – oh yeah, and they’re all children. It is high drama, and the stock in trade of reality TV. Cut to a sequence of a busload of children edited to include ‘video diary’-style outtakes with some of the participants. A Boy Scout, a student leader, a ‘child beauty pageant queen’ and a spelling bee champ were chosen by the producers to be the group’s leadership. By the end of the first episode, all the ingredients for a successful reality show were in place: the group separated into four ‘districts’. The producers introduced social classes, a saloon, a general store and a gold star worth 20,000 dollars to be awarded every few days to the most deserving pioneer.

There is something fascinating about how children relate to one another in groups, and serious observation of such interaction can reveal some interesting things about human nature. But Kid Nation isn’t about that. Kid Nation is entertainment, pure and simple. It is an illusion staged and stage-managed to be dramatic, moving and frustrating, all the things that once made reality TV engaging but which now make it feel a bit stale.

Yet however contrived the situation, so far the individual children have confounded the stereotypes of American society they have been chosen to represent. Of course we can see the ‘types’, when Jared from Atlanta shakes his head and says ‘It’s just craziness!’ or when 10-year-old Taylor explains how she would like to ‘bring world peace to “eye-rack”’ – but as we get to know the individuals, they reveal unexpected aspects of their personalities. In any case, their unselfconscious earnestness makes a nice change from a lot of other stuff on TV.

No matter how successful or entertaining the series turns out to be, one thing is clear: the panic about Kid Nation has been overblown. By all accounts, the kids had a great time and the ‘dangers’ involved were no more than what they might encounter in a sleep-away summer camp. In fact, it was very much like camp. The children weren’t allowed to talk to their parents, but then many mothers and fathers whose kids go to camp rarely receive more than the obligatory smudged postcard written on the first night and mailed in the last week. Staff on the set of Kid Nation rang parents every three days with progress reports, to the point where Sophia’s mother complained on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show that they called too much: ‘I’m Italian and Jewish. When I see a long-distance phone call coming in, I worry! I think there’s a problem!’ Even the contract that parents signed granting CBS rights to the children’s life stories ‘in perpetuity and throughout the universe’ is standard language in US film contracts.

In the end, the real irony of the Kid Nation controversy is how ‘controlled’ the experience was. The children of Kid Nation may have escaped direct supervision but they were entirely governed by the adult imagination. And for people old enough to have experienced the genuine freedom of the woods and vacant lots, when spending time without adults was considered normal and even necessary, Kid Nation epitomises the smaller, safer, sadder world our children inhabit today.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

Previously on spiked

Jenny Cunningham argued that independent play is a crucial part of childhood development. Nancy McDermott reported from a conference on today’s ‘intensive parenting’. Julian Grenier said Sue Palmer has a toxic view of working-class parents. Helene Guldberg wondered if we are smothering our kids with care. Or read more at spiked issue Parents and kids.

(1) ‘Fifth grader on CBS TV show: Cody Mendenhall’s mom speaks up in favor of Kid Nation’, Kate York, Marrietta Times, 13 September 2007

(2) ‘Should kids be seen?’, Meghan Daum, LA Times, 15 September 2007

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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