Child abuse or child empowerment?
With the movie and television screenwriters on strike, we’re in for a whole lot of reality television in the near future. I’ve seen promotions for the old standbys, and for spinoffs from them. And there are new ones, such as a battle between church gospel choirs – that one has potential for reaching either new lows or new highs (not just of the musical variety), depending on how well it’s managed.
One reality show that, at least so far, doesn’t seem scheduled for a repeat is the one that I have been watching for this past season, Kid Nation. I started watching both because it was filmed in New Mexico and also because there was some controversy about it, and I wanted to see what the big deal was. I kept watching because I found it to be really enjoyable and also uplifting.
The premise of the show was to take forty kids, ages 8 to 15, put them together in a ghost town (actually, a movie set Western town), and let them govern themselves for 40 days. Every three days (every weekly episode), they have a showdown in which four teams compete against each other, and there’s a town hall in which the town leadership council awards a gold star worth $20,000 to the town member that they consider the most deserving.
CBS did make some mistakes in filming the show, and those mistakes led to most of the controversy. First, the network chose New Mexico for filming because this state, at the time, had more lax child labor laws (the State Legislature has since toughened the rules). Then, because even New Mexico’s old law limited child actors to working at most 8 hours per day, but Kid Nation was filming 24/7, CBS decided to call the filming “summer camp.” There were a couple of problems with that – one is that the filming happened in March and April, rather than the summer, and the other is that CBS didn’t bother to seek state accreditation as a summer camp.
Some other accusations leveled at the CBS powers-that-be were that there was not enough supervision to ensure the safety of the child participants, and that these children were missing several weeks of school without any formal education plan to keep them from falling behind in their work. Parents also had to sign a waiver that essentially said CBS wasn’t responsible for anything that happened to the kids, including death, injury, STDs, and pregnancy. One parent sued, alleging that the lack of supervision led her daughter to suffer minor burns on her face from splattering cooking oil, and there was another incident in which four of the kids accidentally drank water containing bleach that was intended for rinsing freshly washed dishes to sanitize them.
There are certainly things CBS could have done better. If the network people really wanted to define Kid Nation as a “summer camp,” they could have gone through proper channels. Camps are not required to run only in the summer, and it wouldn’t have been too tough to meet standards. In fact, the bleach water sanitizing rinse is part of the requirements for a youth camp when there isn’t an industrial automatic dishwasher available. I’m willing to guess that CBS already met most of the criteria, and it probably wouldn’t have taken too much effort to meet the rest.
As for adult supervision, even though the promotions for the show emphasized that the kids would be in charge, they were surrounded by adults at all times – camera operators and other production staff, the host who helped to coach the kids through their community building efforts, and, most important, qualified medical personnel who could take care of injuries on the set. Even at home, people (not just kids) get hot grease spatters on their faces when frying food, and if the bleach solution used to rinse dishes at Kid Nation was the same weak concentration as has been used at Girl Scout camp from the time I was a Brownie, it wasn’t hazardous.
Then there’s the question of whether the kids’ education suffered because they came to Kid Nation for 40 days. First, they didn’t really miss 40 days of school. Filming of the show was scheduled such that the time on the set would include each kid’s spring break. And the kids wouldn’t have been in school on weekends either. So the actual time in class that these kids missed was 25 days.
Yes, 25 days is still a lot of school to miss; that’s part of why film industry regulations require on-set tutors for child actors. But what I observed was kids getting the sort of education that school just can’t provide. They were given some structure to work within and guidelines to work with, but then they had to develop their own leadership and solve problems on their own, rather than turning to an adult for support. They had to learn teamwork. They had to cope with natural disasters, such as the wind storm that blew all of the outhouses over – that most definitely wasn’t in the planned program!
What I saw over the course of the program was a whole lot of growth. These kids learned flexibility and resilience in the face of adversity. They also learned how to work together as a community toward community goals. Every episode featured a showdown challenge, in which four teams competed against each other, but all four teams had to complete the challenge in order for the community as a whole to get a bonus prize – some of the more memorable were additional outhouses (so the 40 kids would have 8 to share, rather than just 2) and a collection of religious books, which allowed the kids to learn about and understand one another’s beliefs through open discussion.
I saw kids who started out as spoiled brats develop a sense of community responsibility. I saw kids who started out as above-it-all tough guys develop genuine caring for their fellow pioneers. I saw kids who started out with no self-confidence whatsoever grow into poised, brave individuals. I saw kids who had never been challenged before grow into problem solvers.
They also forged a lot of personal friendships that are going to be meaningful, possibly for a long time, and maybe even for a lifetime. They had to learn to work together, and at the end of the 40 days, there were a whole lot of tears shed as people who had bonded so closely had to part.
In other words, what these kids got from being in Kid Nation is far more valuable than what they would have gotten from 25 days in school.
As Gerald was growing up, Pat and I used to joke that we might get charged with child abuse. We left him to his own devices much of the time. We never did his homework for him, although we did give him some coaching. We made him do household chores – well, actually, we didn’t make him do the chores; we just expected him to do them, and he did.
I even had him scrubbing the kitchen floor at the age of 6 months. No, not the way you might think – one day, just after I had fed him, I had put him down on the floor while I cleaned up the kitchen; he started splashing in the cat’s water dish, and when I ran to intercept him, I lost a shoe that had stuck to a sticky spot on the kitchen floor. I had a “eureka” moment. I put him on the floor and gave him a dishpan with about two inches of warm sudsy water (mild suds, of course). While I was putting lunch stuff away, he would splash at the water, getting sudsy water on himself as well as all over the floor. Then I would take him, wipe off the suds along with the lunch residue that had missed the bib, put a fresh romper on him, and put him down for his nap. Next, I could run the mop quickly over the kitchen floor to pick up the dirt that the suds had loosened, and I could have my own nap in five minutes.
As Gerald has grown, we have been fairly hands-off parents. He’s been doing his own laundry for several years now, and he’s very good in the kitchen. He does still need some prodding occasionally on getting his homework done, but he also understands that what he does has consequences – we’re not going to bail him out. Some other parents are surprised both at how much freedom we give him and at the idea that we aren’t going to protect him from his mistakes.
Still, I think what we’re doing is right – Gerald has earned the Boy Scout Eagle rank, and he’s in a city-wide youth orchestra, and he’s on his high school’s We The People team, which just won the state tournament and which will be going to Washington, DC, in the spring for the national finals. He got SAT and ACT scores in the 90th percentile and above. When he goes to one of the lakes, he’s always cheerfully willing to lend a hand to any sailor who needs it, whether helping with launching, repairs, or crew.
I would love to see a show in the future: Kid Nation: Ten Years Later. I’d be willing to bet that at least 30 of the original 40 will be in some sort of leadership position. These kids have come out of the experience far richer, and the real riches are not measured in the worth of the gold star (although in at least one case, the gold star means the kid can go to college, because without it, he wouldn’t have money to do so). The real thing that these kids have gained is knowledge of their own self-worth, bolstered not by doting parents who tell them they’re great, but rather by doing something significant.
So here’s my advice to CBS: Stick with Kid Nation. Get accredited as a youth camp, so you don’t run afoul of state regulations. Make the contract that parents sign more friendly and less protective of your own interests. I want to see more kids put into situations where they learn how to grow up.