If there's a message for parents in tonight's cable TV special for kids about AIDS, it's "Be prepared."
Prepared not so much for the program, "A Conversation with Magic," which includes some straightforward talk about sex and AIDS, but for your children's concerns about the disease, and for the larger job of parenting.
"This is the kind of program that kids and parents should watch together," says child psychologist Leon A. Rosenberg, of the Johns Hopkins Children's Medical Center. Because the time to answer questions it raises is during the program or immediately afterward, when a child's fears and misconceptions are freshest, he says.
The program, which features basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson talking to preteens about AIDS, includes a couple of HIV-positive children expressing their feelings of rejection as well as a graphic illustration of how condoms are used. The children in the group are about 8 to 12 years old.
Some parents might think their kids are too young to watch; others might take it as an opportunity to let television do the job of explaining sex, AIDS and even morality. Neither assumption is necessarily true, say child psychologists.
"Even kids at age 8 have heard of AIDS, and they may have some wild misconceptions," says James McGee, chief psychologist at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital. "They may think you can pick it up like a cold."
He says parents might use the opportunity to explain that AIDS is only transmitted through intimate contact, and that "you don't just get it one day and drop dead the next."
While the program can set the stage for clearing up misconceptions, it shouldn't be a substitute for raising the subject of AIDS on your own with your children and ferreting out their fears and questions. That should be started at a young age, child psychologists say.
"By the time children are 9 they should have received full information about sex from their parents," says Dr. Rosenberg. "They should have had conversations about sexual intercourse, about how disease is transmitted, about safe sex and about the values that exist in their own family."
Young children who have not shown any interest in AIDS or sexual relations before may be inappropriate viewers for a frank program, he says. "I don't think kids should be hearing out of the jTC blue about HIV and condoms," he said. "Parents should never use TV as a substitute for conversations."
Most parents know from experience that young children ask plenty of questions; but as they approach adolescence they may not ask as many. It's up to parents then to raise the topic with children, says Dr. Rosenberg, explaining "honestly and directly" not only the ABCs of sexual relations and sexually transmitted diseases but how they feel about moral issues as well.
"If you believe using condoms is wrong, you have to tell your kids, because they're going to hear about them on their own."
In discussions about HIV-positive people, he says, parents should make it clear the disease is not easily transmitted and that having the virus does not preclude children from playing with one another.
But whatever you discuss, he says, be honest -- even about your own fears.
"The parent has to be prepared to answer the question, 'Mom and Dad, what do you think of HIV?' Parents have to work out their own feelings or they won't be able to help their kids very well," Dr. Rosenberg said.
Indeed, Mr. Johnson in the program, encourages youngsters to approach their parents to discuss sensitive subjects, backing up the idea that AIDS education begins at home.
"The point is that watching a TV program with kids won't immunize them against high-risk behavior," says Dr. McGee. "The real solution is responsible parenting -- raising children to believe that a parent's advice is credible."
The way to do that, he says, is to "spend time with your kids, become dedicated, responsive parents."
"A Conversation With Magic" airs at 8 tonight on Cable's Nickelodeon channel. It will be simulcast on the Westwood One radio network and broadcast next month on PBS. Nickelodeon will repeat the program Saturday night at 8, Sunday at 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. and Monday at 6 p.m.