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Poignant Stories From The Hearts of Children

The best possible scenario would be that many parents and children, sitting in front of the TV together tomorrow night, switch channels from the canned laughter of sitcoms to discover ABC's "About Us: The Dignity of Children."

As a collection of television images, emotional experiences, and ideas about the worth and intelligence of children, the program, which airs from 8 to 10 p.m., is a rare oasis in the TV landscape. It should be mandated viewing for anyone in a small or extended family.

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The program has no traditional storyline - children and a few adults tell their intimate stories of childhood. Poignant and impish, sad and tough, tragic and spiritual, the two hours are an extraordinary documentary poem.

"What we set out to do was to give children a forum to talk about the things that matter to them," says producer Fred Berner, "and maybe solutions could be found in the way we listen."

Oprah Winfrey sets the direction of the film - children and childhood, but no experts or sociological theories. The opening sequence includes a closeup of a small boy seated on the ground, carefully trying to tie his shoe in silence.

Because his experience is our experience, we watch his pudgy fingers slip and slide with the impossible shoestrings until finally, on the third try, success. He looks up with bright, triumphant eyes. This child is all children. And tying and untying become a metaphor for the film.

The technique of Emmy award-winning director Merle Worth is to use evocative images suggested by the narratives of the many children sharing their thoughts and stories. Sometimes the images are just background and transitory, but always imaginative. Others are rooted in street life or the outdoors and are somber and troubled.

But it is the narratives that drive the film, all presented without identifying the children or three adult writers who recall their childhoods. "We spent probably a year interviewing kids all over the country," Mr. Berner says.

Three Vietnamese sisters in San Diego, wise beyond their preteen years, talk candidly about each other and their family. One says making choices is hard for her. Another says she knows when her sister is lying and can pull the truth out of her. Asked what her one wish in all the world would be, a sister answers softly, "That this family would never die."

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The mass media frequently dwell on a young world of street violence, drug use, and broken families, but the children here, even though some are touched by these problems, respond with wisdom and strength. The children face the camera and in simple, direct terms tell their stories.

A young black boy with braces, stubby ears, and glasses, tells how the bullies at school hound him. But his matter-of-fact description of dealing with them ends with "I have to be tough if I want to go against these guys."

Another boy, with no father at home, says, "I don't know why parents are divorced so much. I want [marriage] to work for somebody because it doesn't for a lot of people."

A girl, in a dance group, says she thinks perfection comes in groups. "Great achievement," she says, "will always be done with the help of someone else."

A boy named Tony describes a terrorized childhood of abuse resulting in his contracting AIDS. Yet, living now in a loving environment, his insights and forgiveness are remarkable. A desperate phone call to a hot line led to his escape.

The three adults who remember their childhoods, Laura Cunningham, Nicholasa Mohr, and Brent Staples (New York-based writers who are identified in promotional materials) recall difficulties and joys.

For Mr. Staples, life with a demanding, cold father was hard and at times brutal. In later years, when Staples learned that his father secretly carried his son's college report card - all "A's" - in his pocket and showed it proudly to strangers, Staples says, "It breaks my heart today."

For Ms. Cunningham, childhood was sweet. "It was pure romance with mother," she says. "Everything was celebration ... everything miraculous." After her mother died, two uncles raised her.

"I would hope that any child or adult viewing the program," says Berner, "would say, 'That's exactly the way I feel,' and that this would bring about a little more connection to each other in their lives."

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