This is the way it's supposed to work: You raise the kid in the cozy affluence of a place like Chevy Chase, surround him with warm, bighearted, socially aware liberalism, put him in a rambling frame house with a backyard and a mutt named Max on a treelined street and hope.

Then, when it's time for him to go to the big suburban high school that lost a dress code around the same time it found an identity crisis, you become very, very understanding when his curly hair reaches his waist and he grows Ds and Es on his report card the way the neighbors grow crabgrass and he hitchhikes to Maine when he's 14 and wants you to support him in New York, while he becomes an actor.

That's called being a progressive parent. When it doesn't work, you get ODS on the Lower East Side and a permanently carved sulk and truly wretched Rimbaud imitations.

When it does work, you get a kid like Dan Stern.

"We figured he could always come home if it didn't work out," said Cyntnia Stern, as her son the movie actor sits on the porch drinking lemonade and basking in the rave reviews for "Breaking Away" in which he made his screen debut. "It seemed like it would be better to let him go and try it rather than stay home and fantasize, and I guess we thought that once he found out what it's really like, then he'd come back and settle down or something. Much to our absolute amazement, it all worked out."

Dan Stern plays a young man named Cyril in the movie, one of a quarter of four 19-year-olds who dance the difficult fandango between adolesence and adulthood and begin to leave solidarity for the more solitary path that leads to selfhood and self-respect.

Cyril is very funny and very smart and very undermotivated, and said Stern, "I was more like him last summer when the movie was being made than I am now." Not surprising -- at 22, two summers can see about eight cartwheels' worth of change in perspective and Stern seems already to have made his way through most of the standard revolutions of the recently adult.

The old rebellion routine, for instance. "Oh, I've already gone through that," he said. "I rejected my roots and realize now that where I come from is who I am." The sayer of this sound tenet has right brown curly hair and cloudless blue eyes and is wearing basic suburban causual -- muchwore gold corduroys with a hole in the knee, faded T-shirt under shortsleeved shirt, all over a tall thin frame that looks as if he should have to wait 10 years before making such pronouncements.

It was mentioned that the stuff that makes up the biographies of most burgeoning stars usually contains seamier material than Stern is able to muster -- on expects to hear about derelict parents, angst sprinkled over the cornflakes, a hard scrap or two for survival, the wrong side of the tracks, that sort of thing. "Luckily I'm blessed with enought neuroses of my own to still make me a good actor," he said laughing.

"Those are very special people in there," he said, looking toward the door that led from the back porch into the house. "My father is a social worker, my mother had been involved with day-care centers most of her life, they've alwyas been very concerned about people, very socially conscious. They always support me, I knew I could always come home. I think that's a much stronger background for acting than trauma would have been."

Of course he smiled, looking back on the report cards and the hitchhiking and all the rest, "They were probably freaing out on the inside the whole time they were being understanding on the outside."

Danny, as he is called, did most of his freaking out at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. "I did a lot of flunking and failing," he said. "I had a violent hatred of classroom and studying. I was lucky the school was so liberal about everything.Otherwise, I probably wouldn't have survived."

But no matter how liberal the policies, he said, "some people in high school just don't fit in. They hold you in there too long.I was constantly angry at myself for my lake of independence."

Danny Stern got by, he said, by knowing how to talk a very good line, and getting the English teachers to let him sing a song when he was supposed to interpret a poem and discovering a place to go whenever he wanted to cut a class -- the school's theater, with its stage and lights and attendant, understanding drama coach. He has wanted to be an actor, he said, since the eighth grade, "when my best friend was in a play and got all the attention."

Like the character he plays in "Breaking Out," Stern had his own comrades with whom to weather the storms of adolescence. One is on Capitol Hill now, the other is in Colorado, finding himself. They had an interlude between high school and the real world that was reminiscent of the movie as well. "There was a lot of hanging out together and a lot of realizing that it was all ending, or I should say, beginning."

His friends came to see him on the set in Bloomington, Ind., and "they were really weired out. I didn't really know then what it meant to be in movies -- whether it meant I was more important or something. How I know it means nothing, at least in that way."

Stern has done a passel or Off-Broadway plays in his short career, and he definitely wants to do more movies -- he thingks he has a part in Woody Allen's next movie, although the contract hasn't been signed and like most young actors, it's the meaty "character" roles he wants -- the kind to be found in movies like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Goodbye Girl," and "everything that Dustin Hoffman's done."

Stern got up to go to the next round of interviews, and the afternoon sun seemed to highlight his self-confidence. He has a girlfriend, an apartment on the Upper West Side, and, most eviably, a sense of the importance of things that seems to be intact for the time being. He returned for a moment to an item on the top of that list.

"My family loves me and I love them," he said. "All the rest is just living." CAPTION: Picture, Dan Stern, By Gerald Marineau -- The Washington Post