Once upon a time there were three little children. By and large, dressing them was a joyful thing. At a moment's notice, their mother could turn the boys into baby Rothchilds, the girl into a shipping heiress or even a Kennedy. Perfection was as near as Best & Co., which -- like this mother's fantasy of being perfect -- has been out of business for some time. In those days, she used to take lots of photographs for the scrapbook. Nowadays, she flips through the scrapbook to remind herself that those were the days.

The eldest son was the first to establish his individuality: sleeveless Army jackets, knee- cap bandanas and a pierced ear hidden under a lengthening hair style. Then the youngest son discovered dirt. He formed a club, still active, called the "All Dirt Association." To qualify, one has to roll in the mud. Fortunately, the little girl grows increasingly more tasteful and immaculate. She will get up at 5:30 a.m. to make sure she has enough time to wash and curl her hair so that it bounces properly on her shoulders when she goes off to school. But she screams as if bitten by an adder when a drop of spaghetti sauce lands on her Izod. The entire house is thrown into an uproar while she races toward the Clorox bottle. This is a family of extremists, and nobody dresses for the kind of success I had in mind.

Time will tell what happens to these children. Who can say whether one day I will see my son the dirt bomb sewing buttons on a seersucker sports coat, or my daughter the Southamptonian browsing in thrift shops. They are still evolving toward personal statements that are,at this writing, incomplete.

In the meantime, they must be dressed, which means taking them to stores where clothing for their evolving bodies can be purchased. Shopping with children is as awful as shopping with parents. It depends upon who you are. But if the experience is to be survived, there are rules all adults must follow. (If you are a child, you may not read any further. This is for your parents, who will deal with you very harshly if you read one more word!) RULE I

Never shop with more than one child at a time.This rule is closely related to another rule -- never raise more than one child at a time. If you understand the second rule, there is no need to elaborate upon the first. RULE II

Dress very nicely yourself. After the age of 9, children do not like to be seen with their mothers in public. You are a blot upon their reputation, a shadow they want to shake. I, myself, always insisted that my mother walk 10 paces behind me, take separate escalators and elevators and speak only when spoken to, which brings me to the next rule. RULE III

Do not make any sudden gestures, loud noises or heartfelt exclamations such as: "How adorable you look in that!" or "$29.95! Are you kidding? For a shirt?" Children are terribly conscious of being embarrassed at any moment by our eccentricities, and it goes without saying that you must never buy their articles of "intimate apparel" in their presence. Children, until enough sleazy adults teach them that it is old-fashioned, are very modest creatures. I one time took the bus home by myself after my mother asked a salesclerk where the "underpants" counter was. Everyone in the store heard her. I had no choice. RULE IV

Know your child's limits. If he can be coerced into a department store, coaxed into telling you that he wouldn't mind wearing this shirt or that pair of pants, don't insist that he go the whole distance -- i.e., don't force him to try them on. Keep the sales slips. Return what is found, at home, not to fit. If he cannot be made to enter the store at all, say: "Fine. When you run out of clothes, wear your sister's." Children who won't go shopping at all save their parents a lot of time. RULE V

Know your own limits. Do not be dragged to every sneaker store in Washington to find the exact pair your child has in mind. Announce: "We're going to Sears -- and Sears only -- unless you want to wait for six more weeks, which is the next time I am free." Some children, with nothing but time and a passion to improve their image, will cheerfully go to Herman's, The Footlocker, and three other stores in Silver Spring they've only heard about, without blinking an eye. RULE VI

Keep you hand on your checkbook. This is a very hard rule to follow if you are not strong-minded. Children can accuse you of ruining their lives because you do not genuflect before the entire line of Ocean Pacific sportswear, and girls in particular have a way of filling you with guilt by telling you that every other girl in their Confirmation class is going to have Capezio sandals and if you want to make her look funny in front of the bishop, she will never forgive you as long as she lives. RULE VII

Keep on top of the laundry. Or if you can't keep on top of the laundry, remember that the very wardrobe your son or daughter wants probably lies waiting to be retrieved from the pile. In certain instances, such as packing a trunk for camp or school, insist that everything the child owns is washed (preferably by them), folded and ready to be inventoried before you go to the store to fill in the gaps. They will hate you for this rule, but remember that true love is strong. RULE VIII

Avoid designer clothes. Shut your eyes to labels. Do not be intimidated by the "fact" that your daughter cannot go to the movies without swinging a "Bermuda Bag," or that your son will not be able to concentrate in the library without "Docksiders" on his feet. Tell your children that the best thing about Gloria Vanderbilt is her bank account, fattened by socially insecure people which, thank God, none of them are!

Having laid down the rules, it may be important to refresh the adult's memory with "remembrances of things past." I have never met the child who did not remind me of how difficult it is to present a confident face to a world. Children need all the protective covering they can find.

As a child I knew that a tree stood a better chance of surviving a windstorm in a circle of trees. My aim was to be the tree in the middle, identical and interchangeable with every other sapling in the grove. Circumstances had a way of spinning me off onto the periphery. Time and time again, I found myself shivering on the circumference, wondering how to make my way back into the middle again.

It seemed to me that social success depended on having at least one of three commodities: a fabulous personality, fame or a yellow Pandora sweater. These were the building blocks upon which one could stand.

A fabulous personality was beyond my power to sustain on a day-to-day basis. Fame, like lightning, seemed to strike other people, none of whom I even knew. But a yellow Pandora sweater could be purchased at Macy's, if only my mother would understand its cosmic importance. Fortunately, she did.

For several days, or as long as it took for the sweater cuffs to lose their elasticity, I faced the world feeling buttoned up, yellow and self-confident, almost like Susan Figel, who had a whole drawer full of Pandora sweaters, in different shades to match her moods.

Unfortunately, I remember that yellow Pandora sweater a little too vividly. When shopping with my children, empathy continually blows me off-course in the aisles. On the one hand, nobody wants their child to look funny in front of the bishop. On the other hand, nobody ever laughs at the bishop, and he looks pretty funny when he's all dressed up.