kid nationI realize it might be weird or possibly offensive to review these two things together, but stay with me here. I hope it goes somewhere.

When Ben travels for work, which is about once a month, I try to fit all of the things that I enjoy doing alone and that also tend to annoy Ben into one glorious evening called Sarah Night. Sarah Night often involves reading O Magazine while watching the Oprah show in the background. Sarah Night usually involves gossiping with old friends on the phone and ordering so much sushi that the restaurant puts two pairs of chopsticks in the takeout bag. Sarah Night always requires the watching some combination of my Sex and the City box set, a Netflix’ed documentary, and corny reality TV shows, probably while in my sweatpants.

Now you might understand how that last night, after polishing off bento box like it was my job, I watched Born into Brothels, the Oscar-winning documentary about the children of prostitutes living in the red light district of Calcutta, and Kid Nation, CBS’s inspirational new reality series about children working together to run a ghost town – you can watch and enjoy it with your whole family!

As weird as this might sound, watching them back to back was pretty moving – it was like spending three hours inside the minds of children during what is a truly strange and baffling age range, between eight and fourteen years old. Not more than a few minutes in to the documentary, I began to realize something: before this, I was a terrible kid-ist. Watching Kid Nation right afterward solidified the point.

As I watched, I began to pick out parallel scenes in the two shows (purely coincidence, of course) that sometimes seemed like echoes of each other and at other times seemed like responses or reactions. Really, the differences and the similarities between these two groups of kids were equally surprising.

Here are some things that stood out to me:

brothelsAdaptation:  In both shows, I was blown away by the children’s ability to adapt and accept whatever came into their lives. Perhaps this is a function of being so young that they aren’t sure what’s normal yet, or perhaps it’s because they still implicitly trust adults. But I don’t really think that it’s either.  It seemed like it was much simpler than that – children seem to be more willing to shift perspectives, change their opinions, or concede that they’re wrong. They’re not embarrassed to learn things or admit to feeling scared, trapped, homesick, etc. They’re just plain curious.

Dreams for the future: I think the big difference in the two groups was the scale of the children’s aspirations. The American kids want to be presidents and beauty queens and firefighters while the brothel kids had utterly accepted their lot in life and understood their situation. On of the  kids even said, “my mom used to joke about sending me to study in London, but we don’t even joke about it any more.” I find both outlooks equally weird: the almost-harmful idea that you can do anything that you set your mind to (not exactly true, we find out in our teens) and the definitely-harmful-but-probably-true idea that if you’re the poverty-stricken uneducated daughter of four generations of prostitutes and drug addicts, you’re stuck with your lot. Either way, though, both perspectives seem like coping mechanisms for understanding the future when you are young.

Play:  Kids play. No matter what. And, corny as this sounds, it is joyful to watch. One of the brothel boys flew a kite on the roof of his building while his mother “worked the line,” one of the other girls found time to play even though she worked cleaning houses from 4 AM to 11 PM. The same phenomenon happened in Kid Nation – hungry, scared, and homesick, the kids quickly developed games and imaginary worlds anyway. It was awesome.

Oh, and: All of the kids seemed… smart. Or, more like little adults than I usually think of them. Even though they acted more immaturely and emotionally than adults, the complexity of thought was there even in the eight year olds. In Born into Brothels they interview a girl who calmly explains the logic of why she would have to join the line even though she didn’t want to. In Kid Nation, there was a surprisingly moving scene when one of the boys delivers an almost old-timey speech about what they were in the ghost town to accomplish. It seemed like, except for their size and some fine-tuning, kids were more or less like you and me.

I spent some time that night thinking back to when I was that age. I have this one very distinct memory of my tenth birthday. It being 1991, my best friend gave me a ridiculously oversized button of Jordan from the New Kids on the Block and I hated it. Not just because I hated the band, but because I was broken-hearted that my best friend didn’t seem to know me at all. When I cried about it to my mother she assumed that I was upset about the gift and not about the exposed ignorance or thoughtlessness of my friend. I remember thinking: Oh, God, she thinks I’m a kid. What a terrible misunderstanding.

None of this may be very surprising to people who work with or have kids of this age, I suppose, but it was very affecting for me. Kid Nation suffers from some bad production and super-stupid artificial team challenges, but there are smaller, more subtle moments of real humanity in it that were impossible for even a prime time reality TV series on CBS to completely eradicate.