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‘About Us’ About Kids, In Their Own Words

Ask a kid what he’s always wondered about and you might be surprised: “I want to know if grasshoppers have brains.”

Ask another what he knows about sex and you get this: “It means that when you kiss somebody you don’t stop.”

These questions and more are posed to children of varied social, economic and racial backgrounds from across the country in a two-hour ABC special, “About Us: The Dignity of Children,” airing at 8 p.m. tonight.

Hosted by Oprah Winfrey, the special (rated TV-14) offers a refreshing and insightful look into the world of children through their own words.

The show is an “intimate portrayal of what it’s like to be a child, the very experience of childhood itself - something that too many of us have probably forgotten,” Winfrey says in opening the program.

The children impart their thoughts to an unseen interviewer on a variety of topics, anything from their fears, frustrations and wishes to their feelings about their heritage, siblings or absent parents.

“I think a normal family is people who love each other, look after each other and make … make … make sure everything is OK,” says an 11-year-old.

A Chicago teen-ager says: “I think grown-ups sometimes forget that kids are as smart as they are. They forget that we see things and we hear things and we feel things.”

Unlike many specials, this one doesn’t offer any so-called expert opinions.

“The minute that people start to talk to you from a place of knowing more than you do, I find that a turnoff,” said executive producer Fred Berner.

“The only truth is that we all want to know the same thing. We’re sort of setting out together to find out what it’s all about.”

Berner and company worked on the project for more than two years. It started with an idea from ABC President Robert Iger.

“He wanted to do something different and innovative that celebrated the world of children,” Berner said. “They were primarily after something that would work in prime time but not be tough and hard-hitting journalism.”

Through research and the help of child-advocacy organizations, director Merle Worth interviewed dozens of children in their hometowns.

“I consciously designed my interviews to explore children as seekers, as anxious to make sense of life as are those of us who are farther along,” Worth said. “I tried to elicit from them all the wondering they do about the purpose of things; the nature of the journey and the final destination.”

Aside from Winfrey, only three adults - all writers - appear in the program to recount formative childhood experiences. They are Laura Cunningham (“Sleeping Arrangements”), Nicholasa Mohr (“Growing Up in the Sanctuary of My Imagination”) and Brent Staples (“Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White”).

The most touching story comes from Tony, now 18, who was diagnosed with AIDS at age 13 after his mother sold him as a prostitute.

“Physical pain is horrible but you get over it and it stops eventually or you die,” Tony tells the camera. “But there is nothing that can kill anybody quicker than constant humiliation.”

Tony recounts how he was beaten by his parents, became suicidal and rode the subways to get away from his horrible home life.

“I feel robbed of a lifetime that I think would have been a good one,” he says.

Berner hopes the special, if nothing else, leaves adults with one impression.

“My hope is that by feeling and being touched emotionally, that they’ll never look at children quite the same way, that something will be planted so there’s a slightly different way of seeing children and hearing them and the hope that we become better listeners.”