The law of the jungle gym is brutal--but does that justify paternalistic intervention?

This is the philosophical point that is occupying the minds of all grown-ups who are sitting mesmerized on playground benches, no matter what the titles of the books lying neglected on their laps or being held as protective shields against sights they cannot bear to witness.

It is universally acknowledged that the big powers are brought in only when grave matters involving safety arise. But safety from what?

Most adults would not hesitate to remove a sandbox shovel from its owner who is using it to pat down the heads of playmates. But what about safety from psychological terrorism? And what, Miss Manners demands, about the safety of civilization if one sees it threatened by the ugly laws of intimidation?

There are questions of jurisdiction. What tactics besides retreat are available to the parent of a child being victimized by the child of an isolationist? Does the parent of a neutral have responsibilities when injustices among strangers are observed?

And there is the crucial matter of diplomacy. How do you stop skirmishes without inflicting the kind of public humiliation that leads to further rebellion?

Some of this may explain why Mamma did not get her brief written when she had a whole afternoon with nothing else to do but sit quietly in the sun, or why Papa does not look rested after being out in the fresh air all day. As havens for adults, playgrounds are vastly overrated. The only real recreational activity they offer for grown-ups is the comfort of finding other grown-ups in the same predicament.

Basic playground rules for parents are:

You do not let small children loose among their peers without explaining such unnatural activities as taking turns, fair play, proper use of playground equipment and consideration for others.

Physical offenses are halted immediately, with cries of "Watch out," and the snatching away of weapons and victims' bodies.

Psychological warfare is halted by calling to one's own child, "Come here, Serena, I need to talk to you." If she is the offender, she is told in a whisper, "Cut that out or else"; if the victim, she is told, also in a whisper, "We have to go now; we'll come back and play later."

Or, less passively, the offender's parent is told, "They seem to be having some trouble playing nicely together. Do you want to explain the rules to them, or shall I?" If no such parent is in sight, the offender is told firmly, "I don't allow Serena to play this way. Either you all play fairly or the game is over."

The idea, throughout, is to hold one's child responsible for his or her behavior without treating other children to the spectacle of the child's being chastised; to hold other parents responsible for their children's behavior without seeming to do anything more disapproving than calling their attention to what they might absent-mindedly have failed to observe; and to convey the idea to other children that their abuses of authority over their peers will lose them that position if, for no other reason, only because they will be left with no one to victimize.

In other words, the playground is a demonstration area for child etiquette, but not the place where the actual instruction takes place. Neither does any adult reading or resting.

Q .There seem to be no problems with any of my wedding plans save this:

I wish to bruise no egos when I choose my best man and have several close male friends. However, my closest and most trustworthy friend is a young lady, and if I had my choice, as you have no doubt surmised, I would have her stand as best "man."

There are no problems otherwise. Everyone realizes that we've known each other for years, and especially my wife-to-be realizes there is a very special friendship between this young lady and me, and there is no jealousy. She has her maids, etc., chosen. This single task remains.

Is this practice acceptable? Will Miss Manners be appalled? Will everyone not in on this little plan become suddenly apoplectic?

A. Not everyone, but someone is bound to become apoplectic over this. It will not be Miss Manners.

Fond as she is of the conventions, Miss Manners is nevertheless entirely in favor of gently fitting the parts available in a wedding to the actual family and friends, rather than the reverse, as practiced by brides who choose their attendants by size rather than affection. Your best friend is your best friend, and Miss Manners has no objection whatsoever to your being attended by her at your wedding, since your bride and "everyone else" have no objection either.

Who, then, will become apoplectic? Probably some relative or other wedding guest whom you have not consulted and little suspect of caring. This person will run around forever after, exclaiming that your choice was outrageous and indecent. Miss Manners only asks you to consider now whether that annoyance will be greater than the pleasure you will have by braving it good-naturedly and doing as you wish.

Q. I am a 30-year-old, never married, man. How old does a man have to be to be considered or called a "bachelor"?

A. A bachelor is an unmarried gentleman who is obviously in a position to support a wife; at the time when everyone is forced to acknowledge that he will never take advantage of this opportunity, he becomes known, with affectionate exasperation, as an "old bachelor." (By courtesy, saplings who attend debutante parties, and divorce's with prohibitive child-support payments are also known as bachelors, but they aren't at all the same.)

Copyright (c) 1983, United Feature Syndicate Inc.