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

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).

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.

''People who abuse their kids are usually trying to be good parents. They are desperately trying to modify a kid's behavior but just don't know how to do it. One of the things I hope we accomplish will be to tell them where to go for help. And to convince them that you cannot raise a child isolated from the community. It's not a weakness to talk it over with neighbors or professionals.''

Does John Merrow have some priority in his concern for America's children?

The furrows in his brow reflect the concern of this father of three youngsters for all children. ''Five years ago, 18 percent of all kids were living in poverty. Today the figure is 24 percent. These are kids being denied some fundamental chance to make the most of themselves through no fault of their own. That's going to reverberate in our society. How can we develop policies that make it easier for poor families to stay together? A good part of the answer lies in adequate child care for households in which two parents must work.''

''You've got to do things which break down the barriers to healthy family life,'' he says earnestly. ''Child care is the place to start. Right now we do it only when it is too late, when the family has failed.

''It would be so simple for the community to set up outreach programs which help new parents right from the start. It wouldn't require a vast bureacracy. It wouldn't require that all parents be labeled failures.

''It doesn't cost money to be a good neighbor,'' he smiles.

John Merrow is, perhaps, the quintessential good neighbor. His new series, ''Your Children, Our Children,'' may prove to be the beginning of a national chain of good neighbors. Timerman goes home

Jacobo Timerman, the outspoken Argentine newspaper publisher, who was jailed and tortured for opposing the former military government a few years ago, recently returned to Argentina after the new government took office. Hodding Carter and Inside Story (PBS, Friday, 9-9:30 p.m., check local listings) went with him to Argentina.

''Timerman: The News From Argentina'' is a poignant study of a man trying desperately not to be bitter, but nevertheless resentful of colleagues who never spoke out when he was in trouble. Timerman visits the jail where he was imprisoned, his old newspaper, the new President, all the while explaining that ''we cannot just forget what happened. We have to deal with the reasons.'' The problem is that the reasons are not easy to determine.

''Inside Story'' tends to barely touch upon the Timerman charges of anti-Semitism which complicated the community reaction to his story. And it turns out to be a disturbing although insightful journey of investigation more than a journey of discovery.

Hodding Carter, in another once-over-lightly, all-too-short but still fascinating program in this indispensable series, manages to elicit an unnerving bit of philosophy (to journalists, that is) from Timerman.

''Many journalists get killed,'' muses Mr. Timerman,''but that is our problem. We journalists are in a permanent war to protect democratic principles. Without those principles, there is no life.''

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