Guest Commentary by Paul Petersen
"Kid Nation," Jamie Lynn Spears, and Kids for Sale
[Paul Petersen is an author, actor, radio talk show host and activist whose non-profit organization, A Minor Consideration, wages a valiant battle to protect children in show business from financial exploitation, the pitfalls of celebrity and too often, parents who neglect their kids’ human needs in pursuit of roles, contracts and short-lived stardom. His frequent essays can be read at www.minorcon.org]
Waking up to find out that 16 year-old Jamie Lynn Spears has announced her pregnancy was just another signpost on our road to perdition. How perfect. Here’s an under-aged, unmarried teenager who stars on a Nickelodeon sitcom whose storyline calls for her to be a girl in a formerly All Boys boarding school. Whattya know— Britney’s little sister turns up pregnant! Wonderful message for our kids, isn’t it?
It is somehow fitting that the final episode of the lame-brained “Kid Nation” and Major League Baseball’s mea culpa regarding what is being called “The Steroid Era” arrived within 24 hours of each other last week. Trying to find the silver lining around these events is like putting lipstick on a pig. Our local paper headlined the baseball expose with the words, “Say it ain’t so ”
Sadly, tragically, it is so. This morning we also learn that as many as twenty-five student-athletes at Florida State have been suspended in an on-line cheating scandal. Classic.
Both the baseball business and the entertainment business have, for the past twenty years, been sending out the same signals to parents and their children who want to play: “Bend the rules. Keep your mouth shut. Do what you must, but don’t get caught.” And above all, “Never be ashamed. Being ‘bad’ pays.”
Let’s clear up one thing right away; kids are not stupid. They are built to sniff out hypocrisy. When parents are unable or unwilling to help children resist the cultural temptations that lead 10 year-old boys in love with sports to start taking steroids, or ten year-old girls to actively research, share, and practice sexual techniques so they can be “accepted,” we’ve got problems. I try to keep my views on kids in the entertainment industry from infecting my perspective on our culture in general, but I have to admit, “Kid Nation” took me over the edge. In computer-speak, the expression is “GIGO,” Garbage In, Garbage Out. Only now, with the project having run its course, are we able to apprehend just how exploitive this production became, from inception to realization, and crucially, how the absence of shame on the part of alleged adults played a role in cheapening the entire meaning of childhood.
Let’s start with the “Kid Nation” Confidentiality Agreement. Forty sets of parents bought into it, and signed it. Imagine being a kid about to be farmed out to New Mexico and being told, in advance, that if something bad happened you couldn’t talk about it upon the pain of a five million dollar penalty. “Let’s live a lie, spread it around, and see if we can profit from it.” That was the message. The participation of the “Kid Nation” parents has bothered me from the beginning, and as the show played out, the rewards were dispensed, and the same parents showed up for the show’s promotion, the sinister nature of it became clearer. Now we know why only some parents were featured on the show and actively participated in the tawdry publicity campaign. 13 kids came away from “Kid Nation” with $20,000.00 Gold Stars, and 3 came away with $50,000.00. No one seems to be concerned about “the losers” in this endeavor. None of this money, need I remind you, belongs to the kids, thanks to jurisdiction-shopping and careful casting.
The parents were bought off, plain and simple. Each set of parents will have to face what we call “The Day of Reckoning” when the law says their child has come of age. I remain mystified by the continuing inaction of state and national labor officials. Just how much “in your face” criminality has to take place before they act? Isn’t a nationally broadcast series featuring on-camera child abuse enough to trigger an official response? Or do we, like the state of New Mexico, just shrug our shoulders and say the whole exercise is “moot” because the company moved on? Tom Forman’s company and CBS still hold the state’s “Permit to Employ Minors.” Why? Just because CBS and Tom Forman say the kids weren’t actors (read that as Employees) doesn’t make it so. Calling a working television set a Summer Camp doesn’t make it so. And denying access to state officials investigating children’s welfare speaks for itself.
If we don’t make sure that consequences flow from bad behavior we will have lost our moral underpinnings. Friends, if you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything.
Our children can’t take much more of this.
Here’s a little guideline: If it’s not safe for children, don’t do it.”