FURTHER ORDERED, that the parties shall take no action against the best interests of the child and shall not seek to alienate the child's affections from either parent, and that the parties shall make all efforts to resolve their differences so as to keep in mind the best interests of the child at all times.

So ends another custody order to cross my desk.

Divorce has made it into the big leagues, and as an elementary school principal I have become a family umpire by default. It's no longer kick-the-can; mommies and daddies are playing hardball now. By the time my students graduate from high school at least 40 percent of their parents, the experts say, will end up divorced.

I began thinking about divorce and its effects on children while I was in graduate school, 12 years ago. My wife and I were sitting on the stoop of our Cambridge apartment when we overheard a passing father say matter-of-factly to his small son, "Daddy loves you. Mommy loves you. It's just that Mommy doesn't love Daddy any more."

Maybe it's because of my heightened sensitivity to divorce caused by my job, but since that event I see divorce all around us. The lawyers, the psychologists, the demographers, the educators, the counselors submit their theories about the causes of the increasing divorce rate. Statistics are compiled, conferences are held, documents are written. I've read the documents; I've been on panels; I've attended workshops.

Yet in looking through the great bulk of expert opinion, the masses of statistics, I think what has been missed is that during the past decade divorce has unobtrusively drifted into the category of thoroughly familiar and somehow acceptable phenomena. It's difficult to attend a movie, turn on the TV or read a newspaper or magazine without divorce creeping in. There is not a neat beginning, middle or end to this divorce creepage in our media-drenched society. But certain events, such as the porch episode in Cambridge, have stayed with me.

July 1, 1975. Ann Landers, adviser of advisers, the champion of family life, announced just short of her 36th wedding anniversary that she and her husband were splitting.

May 24, 1980. Anita Bryant, the symbol of Florida orange juice, whose ministry was to preserve the American family, took action against her mate.

I remember watching Sonny and Cher performing together on a variety show ogling one another and ogling their daughter, Chastity, on stage -- after they already had announced to the world that they were splitting up.

And I watched the news one evening as Marie Osmond of the close-knit Osmond family unraveled her marriage on TV.

"Kramer vs. Kramer," was followed by a slew of movies with divorce as the central theme. Almost all movies now, while not concentrating on divorce, have at least one couple uncoupling: Split-ups are as common as the old western shoot-outs.

And soap operas and the "Dallases" aren't the only television programs that unbind celluloid families. One episode of "Family Ties" untied Uncle Bob's family knot. And, though there's little discussion about it, today we have in the White House the first divorced president in the history of the United States.

Each of us could compile his own list of events that have seemed to place divorce so firmly in American life. We can argue about which events are significant for whom. And, of course, there is no list of top 10 causes for divorce, no neat series of events that have produced our huge divorce rate.

But the fact remains that divorce permeates our society and I see the sad results -- the children -- every day. Regardless of joint custody, single custody, amicable settlements, appropriate counseling, I still see the hurt, the tension, the tears. I understand that divorce can be the best -- or the only -- alternative. I understand the incompatibility of certain couples. I understand that to many adults divorce can be seen as a kind of right, a freedom -- as American as apple pie, and yes, motherhood. I understand. I understand. I understand.

The commonness of divorce has taken away some of the stigma children used to feel, but it does nothing to relieve the pain of losing the presence of both parents in the home. If 40 percent of their friends also have experienced this loss, children may not feel different, but that doesn't mean they feel good. Divorce remains shocking to me no matter how much its public shock value has worn off.

For the father telling his child, "It's just that Mommy doesn't love Daddy any more," and for the child at the end of the judge's order on my desk, a hurt that defies explanation and rationalization is there. For this child and for the many others who come into my principal's office, childhood is no longer kick-the-can.

Richard Lodish is assistant headmaster and Lower School principal at Sidwell Friends School.