PBS begins a fascinating, ambitious project, titled simply "Childhood," tonight at 9 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67.
This seven-week, seven-hour production could have been called "Wide World of Kids" as it spans the globe to bring you the constant variety of children.
In tonight's first hour, called "Great Expectations," you begin to get to know several of the 12 families that the cameras of "Childhood" followed, in some cases for 18 months, recording their observances of important events in their family lives as well as the daily patterns that help to shape their children into adults.
There's the Krilovs in Russia, the parents contemplating a divorce as the family tries for a peaceful rural summer vacation. In Japan, the Nakayamas leave Tokyo to visit grandparents in a smaller city. In Brazil, the Oliveiras make a similar journey from Sao Paulo to the poor rural area they had left years before to make their way in the big city. In New York, the Gholstons' extended family gathers for a Christmas celebration.
Eventually, you meet several other families in Japan, the United States and Russia and one in a Baka village in Cameroon in Africa. The seven parts follow the various children in these families from birth -- the theme of tonight's hour -- to adolescence.
You gain remarkably intimate access to, and knowledge of, these families. They become the characters of a good continuing drama, nicely related with basic storytelling devices. Tonight, you go into the delivery room with three mothers and see their babies before they do, a moment of irresistible power. In future hours, you will be present at a baptism and a bris, go on first days of school and first dates, be there for first words and football games.
But beyond simple observation, "Childhood" tries to give you a taste of academic and political thinking about this universally fascinating stage of life. Tonight, you see Harvard's Jerome Kagan conducting an experiment with a class of Japanese first-graders. Urie Bronfenbrenner of Cornell observes a birth and comments on its fundamental importance beyond its medical aspects, as human ritual. Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund visits a premature-baby ward and talks of the need for proper prenatal care.
In future episodes, Robert Hinde of Cambridge, Sandra Scarr of the University of Virginia, Melvin Konner of Emory University and Benjamin Spock will add their commentaries.
By adopting this multi-cultural, multi-disciplinary approach, "Childhood" attempts to examine the relationship between heredity and environment, between the strong demands of the genes inside of every baby and the expectations of his or her family, and, beyond that, of the social, economic and political society into which they have been born.
Throughout, several themes seem to recur, predominant among them that everyone wants to be different and wants to be the same, and that most parents want exactly those contradictory elements for their children.
Though its commentary has a tone that seems a bit too soft-focus -- you get the idea that they don't want you to remember that childhood doesn't turn out just Albert Schweitzers and Mother Teresas, but also Adolf Hitlers and Attila the Huns -- "Childhood" does offer a plethora of fascinating insights.
You cannot help but notice that the widespread cultural differences that its cameras record seem like the tip of the iceberg, above the much larger mass of common traits and desires that all children and families share.
And tonight you'll be reminded why so many people have depended on Dr. Spock for advice for many years when he points out that parents shouldn't worry so much about trying to raise their children in the right way, because there is no right or wrong way to do it.
"Childhood" shows that there are different ways and different children and different families and different societies, and yet the results everywhere produce the mixture that makes the human tapestry such an eternally fascinating piece of work.