On Culture

Buffer the Children, and Imperil Common Sense

Yo, pioneers!
Yo, pioneers! "Kid Nation" puts children in charge of a ghost town. (By Monty Brinton -- Cbs)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 23, 2007

It is not unusual to walk down the sidewalks of Manhattan and have to dodge a parent pushing a small child on a tiny plastic tricycle. Although the parent is in full control of both speed and navigation, that child is almost always wearing protective bike gear, including a helmet.

It is no secret that parents in a certain demographic have become overprotective of their children. No dodgeball, you could get a concussion! No sugar; no milk; no meat. And, heaven forbid, no being pushed down the street at 1/4 mph without a helmet. There are a host of threats in the world against which parents must be on guard, not the least of which are lead-laden toys from China, and so it seems like a particularly cruel form of masochism to play offense against risks so rare that they are akin to worrying about being struck by lightning.

The fretfulness of some parents, and the speed with which they malign the parenting skills of others, dominated the debate that preceded the debut of "Kid Nation" on Wednesday night. The reality show plopped 40 kids, ages 8 to 15, in a deserted New Mexico town and instructed them to organize their own community without the direct help of adults.

As with most reality shows, the realism is subjective. The children were surrounded by adults on the production team. And while there were risks -- reports say some kids mistakenly drank bleach, for instance -- there were no serious injuries. Kids missed school during the filming, but so far there have been no reports of children failing a grade as a result.

The anger revolved around whether the producers skirted child labor laws, whether the kids were put at excessive risk of injury and whether their parents had been horribly irresponsible by allowing them to participate at all.

The essence of the fury, however, seemed to be that "Kid Nation" dared to tangle with the culture's distorted views on childhood.

A child is now the equivalent of a minor royal who should be coddled, revered and praised at all times. To put a child in the position of possibly skinning a knee is unacceptable. To risk bruising a child's delicate ego is an abomination. To make a child cry -- and capture it on tape -- could signal the end of civilized society.

Children are innocent savants in popular culture. That concept was captured in the book "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." That same notion is the subtext behind the television show "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?," which suggests that kids have a basic, uncomplicated knowledge that trumps the messy version of adult intelligence that is marred by experience, presumptions, nuance and . . . sin.

Parents are in a difficult position as they navigate popular culture and try to keep their children from being prematurely exposed to sex or violence. But now that children have infiltrated all areas of society -- pushed into expensive restaurants, fancy boutiques, bars, Saturday night movies and everywhere else in their ergonomically correct double-wide strollers -- vigilance that once applied only to Saturday morning cartoons and play dates now has to be enforced everywhere. An activist group, Kidsafefilms.org, complained recently to airlines that many in-flight films, though edited for content, remain inappropriate for children. Offending films listed on the group's Web site include "Spider-Man 3," "Casino Royale" and "King Kong." No matter that the vast majority of airline passengers are over the age of 18. Should airline films be edited to the standards of a 6-year-old?

The culture has created an untenable situation for parents and children alike. Long before Britney Spears shaved her head, showed her privates and fumbled at the Video Music Awards, she was pilloried for stumbling on the street while holding Baby No. 1.

Children are assumed to be so fragile that they cannot be jostled. They must be consulted on the family's dinner entree. It takes a TV nanny -- a "Supernanny" -- to remind parents that it's ridiculous to negotiate with a toddler.

Children have been turned into miniature, high-maintenance consumers who require designer labels to keep up with the Suri Cruises and the Maddox Jolie-Pitts of the world. Political ads use children to mouth demands for universal health care or Social Security reform. They have become the fallback weapon: four feet, 60 pounds and 10 sticky fingers' worth of guilt. When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted to levy a congestion toll on drivers coming into midtown Manhattan, supporters ran ads using children: Decrease pollution. Do it for the kids. What about the wheezing, coughing grandparents?

The heavy FCC fine levied against CBS over Janet Jackson's split-second wardrobe malfunction during the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004 was partially justified because children were watching the performance.

Is it any wonder that these highly celebrated children grow up to be demanding teenagers on "My Super Sweet 16"? Teenagers' interests and eccentricities dominate popular culture. Their films control the box office during the summer.

Their baggy trousers changed the silhouette of adult clothing so that grown men see nothing wrong with pants that hang off their rumps.

Teenage girls have become the standard of womanly beauty and adult women try to diet and exercise their bodies back to the physique of a 16-year-old.

For those with the wherewithal to coddle their children, it is a luxury to be able to worry that catching a glimpse of "King Kong" on a cross-country flight might give one's child a bad dream. But it is a nightmare to envision a nation under the tyranny of children.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company