The premiere of Kid Nation (Wednesdays, 8pm EST, CBS) was more compelling than the controversy surrounding this new series. Forty children, between the ages of 8 and 15, are charged with the task of rebuilding Bonanza City, New Mexico, a failed pioneer town from the 1880s. Led by four Town Council Members, (whose collective ages total forty-five years Ė only three years more than the age of our youngest President, Theodore Roosevelt), the citizens of Bonanza City must leave behind the familiar and brave the unknown.
In theory, Bonanza City operates much like any school. With or without adult presence, there is a natural social hierarchy that emerges when children intermingle. Instead of solving math problems from a textbook, or choosing dodgeball teams on the playground, the children of Kid Nation are milking goats, cleaning outhouses, preparing meals and learning to run a functional economy. From the very start, we see the emergence of compassionate leaders, bossy workhorses, shy wallflowers, and rebellious bullies.
Memorable reality television relies on fascinating characters and fun challenges, and Kid Nation is no different. Jimmy, the youngest participant at eight years old, announces within the first five minutes, ďI think Iím gonna die out here!Ē Fast-talking Sophie, 14, catches our eye as she takes charge in the kitchen to feed forty hungry mouths. Eleven year old Mike, one of the Town Council leaders, establishes his internal struggle almost instantly as he tries to find a balance between leadership and friendship with some of the other, more assertive boys. Laurel, 12, another Town Council member, proves herself to be level-headed and empathetic, as she takes some of the younger, more frightened members under her wing. Perhaps the most surprising character is Taylor, the beauty queen. At ten years old, she is the youngest Town Council member. Despite her disinclination for housework: ďIím a beauty queen. I donít do dishes,Ē she displays a depth of self-awareness not typical for children her age. Taylor battles homesickness and shows herself to be a worthy leader, willing to brave whatever struggles may come, save dirty dishes, for the good of the town.
The first few days in Bonanza City were grueling Ė the children had to haul all of their supplies several miles by wagon before discovering the ghost town that they would call home for the next forty days. The Town Council strove to maintain a semblance of order as the masses of children cleaned their bunkhouses, learned to cook, and shared a single outhouse. Just when everything seemed to be slipping into bedlam, Michael, 14, delivered an impromptu speech that motivated the children to take on the real challenge of Kid Nation - to prove that kids can do anything they put their minds to.
After splitting into four teams, or districts, the first of many challenges, called Showdowns, was presented. For reality tv standards, it was a fairly well-designed competition that had the children vying for team as well as whole-group rewards. Even graffiti-writing Greg, 14, whose behavior was called ďjuvenileĒ by nine year old teammate Alex, channeled his rebellious energy for the good of the team. Using giant pumps, the teams drew water from pipes sticking out of the ground and caught the water, which also had to match their teamís color, in metal buckets. They transported the water to long-necked water bottles. The first team to fill their bottles and carry their pump across the finish line were marked Upper Class, and received one dollar each. The next teams to finish were labeled Merchants, Cooks, and Laborers, and received payments of fifty cents, twenty-five cents, and ten cents each, respectively. Also following this challenge, the general store and saloon opened for business, with the Merchants at the helm.
The greatest moment of this challenge occurred when, in the final ten seconds, the last team crossed the finish line, earning the entire town a big reward. Host Jonathan Karch unveiled two choices: seven additional outhouses, or one old-fashioned television set. As expected, some of the children gasped audibly upon seeing the television, but in the end, they all agreed that the outhouses would be the most practical choice. Especially Jared, 11, who had been fretting over the single outhouse situation and wondering what would happen if he didnít use the latrine for the entire forty days. Really, who could blame him? I deplore public restrooms, so I felt Jaredís pain!
The citizens of Bonanza City were just acclimating to their new jobs when the first Town Council Meeting was called to order. On the agenda: evaluating the progress of the town under the leadership of the Council, awarding the first gold star trophy (worth its actual weight in gold - $20,000) to the hardest worker, and releasing any children who didnít wish to stay. After questioning the leadership of the Town Council, Sophie, a mature and poised public speaker, was awarded the first gold star trophy and an opportunity to call home. Remember Jimmy? His early predictions clearly preyed on his young mind throughout the first few days in Bonanza City. Homesickness won out over prodding from his ďManís DayĒ compatriots, and Jimmy decided to return home to his family.
If you understand the nature of kids in a group setting, you can probably predict whatís coming next. Without the incentive of money, status, or gold star trophies, the kids had reasons other than external rewards to make a better Bonanza City. Throw in prizes, and everything will change, which raises some interesting questions. Without the external rewards, would a kid like Greg ever find the motivation to work hard? Does dangling a carrot in front of a child teach them anything about the value of taking pride in a good, hard dayís work? What will happen when the first cries of outrage and injustice over a gold star trophy perceived to be unfairly awarded echo throughout the ghost town?
Iím optimistic after fourteen years of working with children that the citizens of Kid Nation will put gold stars aside, rise to the occasion, and make Bonanza City a model of peace, order, and justice from which we adults can learn a thing or two. (Keep an eye on Town Council Member Anjay, 14. I think heís going to have a great deal to do with my prediction.)
If thereís one thing Iíve learned over the years, itís this: never underestimate kid determination.