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Warning: Children in Charge

For parents, there’s nothing more gratifying than the white-hot itch of outrage. A hearty helping of peeved exasperation, coupled with a leisurely blame-laying session, can be such a delightful distraction from our own inequities as muddle-headed mothers and flawed fathers.

Kid Nation has been kind enough to provide our latest whipping post — but I’m not sure the ire is entirely deserved. The upcoming CBS reality show plunked 40 children in the middle of Pretty Much Nowhere, New Mexico, for 40 days with no contact with their parents. The kids’ challenge: To turn an Old West-style movie set into a functioning society with a government, working store, hot meals, and someone to clean the outhouses.

Ranging in age from 8 to 15, the kids arrived on the set in April to less-than-cozy conditions: no electricity, bed rolls on the floor, extreme desert temperatures, and the only fresh water sloshing around in a well a quarter-mile from camp. The children each got $5,000 for taking part, and competed weekly for another $20,000. Anyone could opt to go home at any time, and a few did.

The show, which premieres September 19, is understandably controversial. CBS was accused of skirting child labor laws, allowing them to work for 14-hour stretches. There were on-set injuries: a sprained arm, a burned face from cooking grease. Four of the children accidentally drank bleach from an unmarked bottle.

You can’t blame critics for wagging their fingers at this exploitive enterprise. Face it: Network execs are callous ratings-grubbers who’d sell their own grannies into “reality” slavery (So You Think You Can Knit; Pimp My Walker) for a higher share of viewers.

And yes, any parent who’d sign a contract absolving the producers if their youngster should die or contract a sexually transmitted disease has clearly not been watching Lindsay, Britney, and Paris come of age: Does anyone really still think the spotlight is a great place for kids to grow up?

But I think there’s another factor at play here, another secret sentiment driving our collective indignation over Kid Nation, which we’ve yet to even see: We’re afraid these kids are gonna like it.

Admit it. We’re all just a liiiiiittle bit worried that, given the chance to fly solo, these pre-teens are going to rise to the challenge and realize they can manage okay on their own. They can scramble eggs in a pinch. They can scrub latrines if need be. They don’t technically need their parents; they may not even (gulp) miss them.

And then, by god, what would we do? If kids find out they’re as smart, strong, and capable as us — and without our cynicism and increasing inability to recall the names of everyday nouns — the hierarchy of our households would topple!

Every “not until you’ve eaten your vegetables,” every “not until you’ve finished your homework” would be met with a cheeky, “If I can haul well water, I can certainly manage my own fiber intake and study schedule. Jeez.”

It says a lot that most Kid Nation kids — even the bleach-drinkers — chose to stay the whole 40 days despite tears, arguments, and an unpleasant little diva who snaps, “I’m a beauty queen. I don’t do dishes!” But think about it. You were a kid once. What heat and hard labor would you have endured for the privilege of not being nagged about going outside in your clean socks? Or making your bed?

The Kid Nation trailer shows children shouting triumphantly as they thrust their filthy, candy-clutching fists toward the New Mexico sky. A voiceover says, “Can they succeed where adults have failed?” And the answer is, of course they can.

But for god’s sake, they don’t need to know that, do they?


Published inColumnsParenting
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