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John Merrow hopes to help America's future with 'Your Children'

By Arthur Unger / March 30, 1984

John Merrow wants everybody to know America could be endangering its most valuable asset - our 67 million children. And to help America mend its ways with children, Dr. Merrow (a PhD in education and social studies at Harvard University) is host of a seven-part documentary exploring the status of children in the American family: Your Children, Our Children (PBS, starting Sunday, April 1, 6:30-7 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats).

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Merrow, who looks so much like comedian Steve Martin that he is often mistaken for him on the street, is dead serious about his work with children. For about eight years he did a series for National Public Radio which ''dealt with issues like foster care, child neglect, juvenile homes, violence in schools.''

''Gradually,'' he explains in an interview, ''I began to feel I could have more of an impact through television. And so this series evolved. But, I want to make it clear that it is not about problems, however. It is about issues involving children.''

Dr. Merrow has a childlike quality about him although his hair has turned gray prematurely. He looks his interviewer right in the eye like a precocious youngster and laughs easily like a seventh-grade jokester, most often chuckling at himself and what he perceives rightly to be his own single-mindedness when it comes to children's issues.

''Let's face it,'' he says, ''families and children are the basis of our society, and the members of a family have a responsibility to be aware of the most they can do for their own family group. Kids can't make it on their own. But neither can families make it on their own. Families need the help of other families, their community, their society. Not just the extended family.

''The future of the country is being formed right now, and we are not paying enough attention to the younger generation. There is so much that could be done which is not being done. That's the main purpose of this series - to call attention to all the things that are not being done.'' But he also says that the series will ''call attention to the good things which some individuals, some organizations, some governments are doing to make a better life for the children among them. The information must be made available to parents all over America.''

I have screened the premiere of the series - ''Life and Death,'' which concentrates on preventive prenatal care. Health and nutrition rather than medical services are stressed.

Later programs concentrate on sex education in the home, neglect and abuse, part-time work for high school students, treating students like individuals in school, and child care. The final program, scheduled to air in most areas on May 13 is a roundtable discussion on children's rights.

Dr. Merrow takes a conservative point of view in most areas - he believes that much can be accomplished within the family group. ''But there are places where good things are happening. For instance, good things are being done in Missouri to reduce teen-age pregnancy. Let's call attention to it.

''You can do it in your own community. Action doesn't have to be national.''

Children's rights is an issue handled in many ways in the series, mainly through call-ins (a coordinated outreach program which will include local call-ins and hot lines). ''But usually it is not a question so much of children's rights as much as of parental responsibility. I will never forget a judge in Louisville telling a father he couldn't treat his child cruelly. The man answered, 'This here boy is like my car. I can do what I want with both of them.' Some people have to be taught that a child is not a piece of property. He is an adult-to-be.