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Listen to the children

When you watch a TV show that talks about kids today, what do you often see?

Some decrepit anchor guy speaking in ominous tones about the dangers today's kids face? Or some gray-haired professor/doctor/therapist presenting an expert opinion on what ails youth?

Filmmaker Fred Berner feels kids' pain. So when ABC asked him to put together a television show on the experience of childhood _ what it really feels like as you grow through that time in life _ the Emmy-winning producer had only one ground rule.

No experts. No authorities. Only a precious few adults at all _ and they would be limited to talking about their own childhoods.

In other words, nobody's going to speak for kids, except the kids themselves.

"What we chose not to do was hold children up in some idealized way _ say aren't they grand and wonderful and perfect _ or look down on them from the tragic point of view," says Berner, who spent three years assembling the two-hour program About Us: The Dignity of Children.

"If we can understand where they're coming from for a little bit _ realize that even as adults, we share a lot more in common with them than we think they do _ maybe we have the ability to approach kids as dignified human beings."

Dignity for children? For some adults, that may be a foreign concept.

So used to commanding, questioning, instructing and caring for their young charges, adults sometimes forget to respect children, Berner says. And respect starts with a simple act.

Listening.

"We gave everybody the benefit of time in front of the camera, and we were rewarded with real wisdom," Berner says. "Book knowledge can convey all kinds of solutions, but I figured just by listening, we could get them from an original source: the kids themselves."

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"Most people think money is the most important thing. But money can't say I love you. Money can't care about you. People (who think) like that . . .they're not even alive. They don't have a heart. So I think kids are the most precious thing in the world . . . because they care about you. They can say I love you."

_ a 7-year-old girl in Southern California, quoted in About Us.

Faced with the daunting task of communicating the joy, pain and discovery of childhood, filmmakers grappled with how they might put that experience into visual images compelling enough to hold viewers for 120 minutes.

As About Us unfolds, it's obvious director Merle Worth succeeded; mostly by offering surreal images of children in varying situations and snatches of visuals recreated by actors that relate to what the subjects are saying.

In telling the story of Tony, a 13-year-old child forced into prostitution by his parents and later diagnosed with AIDS, an actor recreates his aimless wandering of subway systems as a small child _ showing the despondency that almost led him to take his own life.

Other shots show brief snapshots of children chasing butterflies, teenagers learning the intricate art of Irish dance, and one youngster spending 1{ minutes _ an eternity in TV time _ tying his shoe.

"I wanted to create a style that was at once wondrous and unnerving," says Worth. "Sound and image were conceived in such a way as to create a sense of being inside these childhoods and emotions _ the nostalgia of vintage toys; secret peach groves; the squeaking of chalk on a blackboard."

About Us also presents three adults _ authors who have written books about their childhood _ recounting their experiences as youths. They range from New York Times editorial writer Brent Staples' bitter account of life with parents who forced him to grow up too soon to playwright Laura Cunningham's touching story of being raised by two uncles after her beloved mother died.

Host Oprah Winfrey even gets into the act, sharing painful experiences with the camera _ such as her rape at age 9. "I know it wasn't a happy day when I was born, because I was born out of wedlock," she says, her face filling the TV screen. "My mother carried me in secrecy and shame. I always grew up feeling disconnected and alone _ even when I was surrounded by other people. My single greatest feeling of being a child, was being alone."

"I think it's essential that the country listen to its children _ hear their cries, their wishes, their hopes and their dreams," says Winfrey in a written statement circulated with review copies of the program. "The voice and images took me back to my own childhood, evoking memories of my reading a poem in church, washing dishes in my grandmother's house and wanting to be loved just for being myself."

For Berner, those feelings are the key to remembering his own childhood and learning to respect the ups and downs of others. "When we denigrate kids _ talk down to them _ it's a way of denigrating their existence," he adds, noting the project has helped him relate to his 13-year-old son. "Just listen where they're at in a given moment and be a little more available."

In the end, Berner says, the central message of About Us is a simple one: That the story of childhood is really everyone's story.

"We felt that if we could gain access to the world of children (we'd) find out we continue to share so many of the same feelings," he says. "That knowledge can hopefully inform the way we look at kids. It may sound like a cliche, but they are truly our most precious resources."

AT A GLANCE

About Us: The Dignity of Children airs at 8 p.m. Saturday on WTSP-Ch. 28, hosted by Oprah Winfrey. Grade: A+. Rating: TV-14.

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