If the measure of a successful reality show is how many people it ticks off before airing a single frame (think Joe Millionaire), then CBS's Kid Nation is one of the most successful reality shows of all time. The series, in which 40 children, ages 8 to 15, create their own society in a New Mexico ghost town, has been accused of violating child-labor laws. Various publications have reported that several kids mistakenly drank bleach from an unmarked bottle, and one was spattered with hot grease while cooking. Embarrassment-wise, CBS is only lucky that the cast is by definition too young to have DUI histories.
After Kid Nation debuts on Sept. 19--assuming it does--the hubbub could fade or snowball. (As of press time, CBS wasn't screening the program to critics, perhaps to keep the hype building.) But even without injuries, the show was bound to be controversial, and not just for putting kids in the TV spotlight. Rather, the show's premise--sending kids off on their own, to take risks, experiment and possibly fail, without parental intervention--runs against the spirit of modern child rearing.
We are, after all, in the age of the involved parent, or the overinvolved parent. The theory of "attachment parenting" espouses sleeping in the same bed with Baby for early bonding. Schools complain of hovering "helicopter parents," a label that some moms and dads wear proudly. The amount of time candidates spend with their young kids is even an issue in the primaries. For the enlightened 21st century mom and dad, quality time has met quantity time. Never mind the bleach: the idea of having kids care for themselves, separate from parents, rings faintly abusive in itself.
As the hyperinvolved parent of two, I realize there are worse phenomena than people spending a lot of time with their kids. But it's also exhausting, and pop culture has started asking if kid life has overwhelmed adult life. In the book Perfect Madness, Judith Warner worries that a "total motherhood" culture makes moms feel inadequate, while in The Death of the Grown-Up, Diana West argues (hyperbolically) that the eroding distinction between kids and adults is "bringing down Western civilization."
For parents, one of the more fascinating facets of AMC's period advertising drama Mad Men is its picture of child rearing in pre-childproofed, pre-co-sleeping 1960. There is a sense here that parents and kids have separate lives, and the kids' lives seem as alien, independent and dangerous as in caveman times: they ride in cars un-seat-belted, play with dry-cleaning bags and get sent off to shoot BB guns while the grownups have cocktails.
Like the adult characters' smoking and sexism, this is not model behavior. But does it make you a terrible parent to pine, just a little, for a time when the job was less all consuming? Contrast Mad Men with HBO's couples-therapy drama Tell Me You Love Me, in which, despite the buzz over its explicit sex scenes, the most interesting couple is the pair who never have sex. Dave (Tim DeKay) and Katie (Ally Walker) are devoted parents who haven't been intimate in a year--in part, simply because of the exhaustion of everyday chores and staying close to the kids emotionally and physically. (Katie, we learn, breastfed them until they were 2 1/2.) "I guess, yeah, I should be in the mood every time I clean out the gecko cage!" Dave yells, ranting sarcastically about the erotic stimulation of bedtime stories and minivan shopping. "Our entire life," Katie tells him, "that's what you just trashed."
Our entire life. Granted, it's a false choice to say that it's either sexless marriage or shipping the runts off to CBS reality camp. But beyond the cheap shock, I suspect Kid Nation has touched on a real anxiety in the era of extreme parenting: the horror, and yet the appeal, of children having lives separate from Mom and Dad's. Because even to a good parent, sometimes "kid nation" can sound like America by another name.