HE-MAN AND RAMBO be damned! Toys-R-Us go take a nap! You can no longer seduce my little boys with your vulgar toys. They know a good action toy when they see one, and the best ones have no instructions, no batteries, no moving parts, and no price tag.

Thanks to the cicadas and gypsy moths that this summer pruned or stripped thousands of trees in the area, a few million sticks now litter the grounds around us. The adults may be complaining, but the preschool male population in my neck of the woods is in hog heaven. A big stick is the world's most ancient toy and one that is likely to be around for a few more centuries.

I wasn't prepared for this battle. The baby cards and birthday cards that were sent to my children showed dimpled darlings with footballs, baseballs, trains, puppies, sailboats, fire trucks and tricycles. Not one depicted a three-year-old snapping a willow branch on the concrete as a show of strength to his playmates. Not one showed an hysterical mother wiping blood from her toddler's chin, an injury inflicted by the older brother with an oak branch.

To the cave man, a stick meant "I'm ready to go hunting (or fighting)." To his young descendants, it means "I'm ready to play (or fight)." With one word or motion, a stick in my neighborhood becomes a sword, a gun, a horse, an airplane, a karate instrument or a badge of security. It can be used to nudge kites out of trees, to mark off important boundaries and battle lines in sandboxes, to squash bugs on the sidewalk, or to show that a swing seat is reserved. The number of uses is determined only by the number of boys.

Regrettably, the weapon-like qualities of sticks are terribly attractive to small boys, and mothers being what we are, my neighbor Eileen and I played Cagney & Lacey all summer long one year. We tried to protect the civilians (anyone who wasn't carrying a stick). With eight boys under age six (including a set of twins), it was almost a fulltime job.

But our pleading fell on deaf ears most of the time, and I prayed for cold weather. I figured that on 20-degree days, sticks would lose their appeal, especially if you had to handle them with mittens. No such luck. My son's heart remained unchanged all winter long. Instead of storing his stick collection on the porch as had been his custom during warmer days, he now begged to bring the sticks indoors.

This time my heart remained unchanged: "No!" Occasionally, however, one was smuggled in. Once I spotted a silver maple branch propped under the glass coffee table. Six-month-old Jeffrey began rolling toward it, his eyes bright with excitement.

"Sam!" I bellowed. "What's this stick doing in the house?"

"Because I like it," he answered earnestly.

I decided to delve deeply into the recesses of his young mind. He was three. "And why do you like it?" I asked gently and without bias.

"Because I need it, Mom."

Here in the thick of stick season, my campaign for safety continues. I recently asked several friends with grown sons if their boys were attracted to sticks when they were youngsters. They all said yes, but nobody knew why. Maybe Theodore Roosevelt had the best clue. His 1901 admonition may no longer be effective diplomacy, but he understood a lot about children and human nature.

All over America, little boys still feel confident when they speak softly and carry a big stick. STICKING AROUND

Parents who have children who love sticks can try some fresh approaches to the subject.


With a little encouragement, a kid who likes sticks can become an adult who respects and loves trees. To nurture that interest, share with your child the beautifully illustrated The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees, Eastern Region (Alfred A. Knopf, 1980). Among other fascinating details, it has photographs of more than 350 different tree barks. FOR KIDS:

Learn how to build a fire either by reading about it, or by reading and doing it. Paul Cardwell's superb and thorough America's Camping Handbook (Charles Schribner's Sons, 1976) devotes several pages to selecting the best sources of firewood and constructing the ideal campfire. Teen-agers who have had some science instruction will understand Cardwell's brief lesson about the physics of combustion. FOR THE FAMILY:

Enjoy a picnic at Roosevelt Island and pack a pair of binoculars. After the kids have seen the statue of the President who talked about big sticks, hike along the trails and look skyward. Hunt for nests that were built with sticks.