Since all my children watch "All My Children" (they would sooner forget their lunch bags than forget to set the video cassette recorder when they leave for school), I thought I'd better look at a couple of episodes myself.

No, I'm not about to confess addiction to that stupendously complicated ABC-TV "soap." I haven't managed to work up much interest in who killed Zack, or how the various clusters of characters relate to one another (Have Cynthia and Jesse ever met?). It's just another "soap," raunchy enough to make me a little uncomfortable that my children -- and apparently a good many of their friends -- like it so much, and as much a waste of valuable time as anything else on the tube. I don't commend it to your children.

But it has one thing going for it. It makes clear to the children, as prime-time television rarely does, that character improvement comes only slowly and uncertainly if at all. Tad promises to change, and perhaps he even tries to change, but he goes on using people. Cynthia reacts to each new crisis in the same knee-jerk fashion: by trying to lie her way out of it.

For this reason, if for no other, "All My Children" may give young viewers a more realistic view of character -- of life -- than the wholesome series ordained for family viewing.

I am convinced children get a distorted view of things by watching even the best prime-time series. For 15 minutes, they see a kid who is a total screw-up: skipping class, neglecting homework, respecting neither parents nor teachers, maybe doing drugs or alcohol.

Then, 20 minutes into the show, something happens to him, or he meets someone, and he suddenly realizes the error of his ways. Five minutes later, he's an "A" student.

The false lesson it teaches is that goof-offs can straighten out any day they decide to do it. It may be one of the reasons I see so many bright-but-indifferent young goof-offs who imagine that they will quickly develop sterling characters and good study habits as soon as they go off to college.

Well, life doesn't work that way. Rotten kids seldom experience just the right social crisis, that makes them suddenly see themselves as others see them, or hear the perfect word from the kindly coach that turns them into instant paragons.

Good habits take just as long to build as bad ones. It is not enough to make a good decision once. You have to keep making good decisions, and keep renewing your resolve every time you slip. You cannot rebuild your character, learn self-respect and reorient your life in 30 minutes, with time out for commercials.

This, for all its pervasive immorality and too-explicit sex, is what "All My Children" -- and perhaps the other "soaps" as well -- makes clear. It teaches that character transformation is a slow, tortuous process that involves loss of friends and status, that people expect you to go on being the same rotten person you were (which reinforces the rottenness) and that the temptations don't vanish into thin air because you decided you would like to change.

Good character seldom comes in single road-to-Damascus flashes but results from the long, hard habit of making good choices, again and again.

If "All My Children" reinforces this valuable lesson, then all the time all my children spend watching it won't be a total waste.