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The Family Room by Michelle Martin

September 2, 2007

Kid Nation?

On Sept. 19, CBS will debut “Kid Nation,” a new reality-based series that follows the triumphs and failures of 40 children ages 8-15 taken to a “ghost town” in the New Mexico desert and left to develop their own social structure—on tape.

The children had little or no contact with their parents, all of whom signed contracts waiving their right to sue for damages in case of accident, illness, pregnancy, humiliation or virtually any other negative experience that could befall their children.

They also agreed that neither they nor their children would talk about the series, except with the producers’ approval, for three years after the series—not just this season—goes off the air, and that the producers would have the rights to their children’s life stories in perpetuity.

What did they get for their cooperation? The children who participated through to the end each got a $5,000 stipend, and were eligible for a $20,000 prize for each episode.

What were they thinking?

No doubt the episodes will show lots of happy kids, kids hard at work, kids proud of what they’ve accomplished. They might also show kids struggling, kids in tears when they lose a contest that they tried their hardest to win, kids arguing with their—what, coworkers?

But will they show the children who are afraid of the dark, children who feel left out, children who are the object of others’ jokes—or who make fun of those not as capable as they?

The show’s Web site features a menu of fresh, smiling faces, complete with questionnaires listing who their heroes are, and who they see as examples of the worst leaders. George W. Bush was listed for both questions.

All the kids were screened to make sure they were in good physical and psychological health, and all of them wanted to do it.

Caroline, at 9, would theoretically be eligible to be on the show.

When I asked her about it (after all, the Web site also includes an application for the next season, which will be taped at an as-yet- undisclosed location), she said she wouldn’t want to be on it, but she would want to watch it.

If the kids were on camera all the time, she reasoned, an adult would know when something happened to them and offer help. And, she said, some of the kids are 15—almost adults.

I enjoyed her reaction because it is so innocent; it bespeaks an image of the world where adults help children, not hurt them, and where growing up is a straightforward march from childhood to adulthood without the unpredictable detours and backtrackings of adolescence.

Somehow, I don’t think the parents who agreed to the proposal share that happy worldview. More likely, they think their children can beat out the competition and deserve a chance to try. Maybe they’re right, but the potential cost is so high.

Parents have an obligation to love and nurture their children. To me, turning them over to television producers is a violation of trust.

Martin is assistant editor of the Catholic New World. Contact her at [email protected].