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Networks turn attention to children

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NEW YORK — Following a week of disturbing images of the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, television turned some of its attention Saturday to trying to explain the unexplainable to children.

On a morning when young people are used to seeing cartoons, ABC News aired a two-hour special with Peter Jennings to answer children's questions. NBC's "Today" show had a panel with teenagers and Linda Ellerbee put the finishing touches on a Nickelodeon special to air Sunday night.

"This is the hardest show we've ever done," Ellerbee said in an interview Saturday. "The children are so inspiring that I came out of it taking strength from them."

Ellerbee's Lucky Duck Productions has made about 30 specials trying to explain world events to children ages 8 to 13 over the past decade. This one was different: Ellerbee and her staff wore surgical masks while doing post-production work because their lower Manhattan office was affected by the soot from the blast site.

The special, "Nick News: Kids, Terrorism and the American Spirit," premieres at 8:30 p.m. Sunday and will be repeated several times over the next week.

Ellerbee was also a panelist for Saturday's "Today" panel, where two youngsters said they drew special comfort from seeing so many American flags displayed near where they live.

Ellerbee said she and about a dozen staffers all wore some version of the flag Saturday, usually in a bandanna. "It looks like a Grateful Dead concert," she joked.

Experts said not to shield youngsters from what's happening and talk about it, no matter how difficult it seems.

"Terrorism is never more obscene as when you try to explain it to children," said Kyle Pruett, a Yale University expert on children who appeared on the ABC special.

The children had poignant, sometimes heartbreaking questions that the adults had trouble answering. One girl, her eyes brimming with tears, wondered whether this meant her serviceman father wouldn't be home as much.

Another boy asked, "Are we David or Goliath? How is God going to see who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?"

Said Ellerbee: "Once again, kids have lost their sense of safety, had it taken from them. We want to protect kids from this kind of knowledge, this kind of thing. We want to keep them safe. This is the sort of thing that throws it in our faces."

A Muslim girl appeared for the taping of Ellerbee's show and said that she's been subjected to angry comments from adults, not children, Ellerbee said.

She tells children that "this is a real opportunity to teach adults. If each of us can hold the hand of a Muslim child, you can show adults how wrong it is to blame a whole religion."

Ellerbee is encouraging children to write down their thoughts, in poems or letters to rescue workers or the children who lost parents in the attack. Her production company has promised to deliver them.

Pruett warned that the longer young children have exposure to the most disturbing images from Tuesday's attack — planes flying in to the World Trade Center, the towers collapsing, adults running in panic — the longer it will take for them to settle down.

It's been difficult for many youngsters to avoid such images. Broadcast networks ended their continuous coverage of the attacks Saturday after going commercial-free since Tuesday. Cable news networks are keeping up with their coverage.

"I say at the end of the show that it might be a good time to turn the set off for a while," Ellerbee said. "For all of us."