Nowadays," Ladies' Home Journal proclaimed last June in its annual propaganda salute to Dads Who Mommy, "the sight of a tiny infant nestled in a Snugli and strapped to Daddy's broad chest is so commonplace that nobody even looks twice -- except maybe to catch another glimpse of such a heartwarming vision." And for sure, I-I-I-I-I . . . agree with that, and I know deep down that '80s sensi-dads are right and good and that they promote world niceness, and yet I still must register the tiniest dissent and ask: Why is it that every time I see a papoose-toting father I find myself -- on the third glimpse, after I've stopped issuing staccato coos of heartwarmed approval -- packing an imaginary slushball as tight as the Orlov diamond and winging it so hard at the guy's self- satisfied head (important note: I would never aim at the infant) that I knock his Greek fisherman's cap for a six-foot loop?

My attitude is wrong, I know, and it may even sound heartless and anti-baby, but ask yourself: Isn't it possible that maybe, just maybe, the Fully Nurtured Generation may not turn out as swell as everyone assumes it will? Who can know? What if, instead of the predicted cohort of well-adjusted and likable youth, we get -- better siddown -- 30 million New Christy Minstrels?

So you see, I do worry about today's kids. Especially the boys. I worry that they may keep those dumb "helmet" haircuts when they grow up. I worry about having an orthopedic surgeon named Justin. Or Jason. Or Creth. And right now I'm worrying about the lack of imagination these young boys display at playtime. If you've ever logged any serious time observing them, you've probably noticed that they seem inclined (perfectly happy, in fact) to use their toys according to their parents' instructions, without any disciplined investigation into a plaything's creative potential. This I don't understand. The other day, through my bedroom window, I watched three energetic grade-school-age fellows shooting suction-cup-tipped arrows at a cardboard target. Now, as you doubtless remember from your own youth, these bogus arrows never ever stick, so within minutes you abandon the target and start improvising. First you lick the suction cup, stick an arrow on your forehead, make "Gaaacck!" noises and do some rococo death staggers. Then you ditch the tips and start firing the now-speedier dowels at one another's eyeballs. Then, annoyed by the sparrows and bluejays that are forever terrorizing your backyard, you duct-tape a roofing nail on the end of an arrow, scatter some black socks and caraway seeds on the patio flagstones and hide in the bushes while you wait to "shoot over decoys." Finally, of course, you make a "flamer" by taping on and lighting a gas-soaked cottonball.

Well, believe it or not, these kids did none of that -- they simply twanged and kept score, without arguing or punch- ups -- and though I have no hard evidence, I'm like . . . real sure that this has something to do with constant sermons about safety and non-aggressive play, T-ball, children's folk songs, sugarless cereals and dads who, as one man writing in McCall's put it, "compete with their wives for top honors in motherhood."

Which is why, on this special day for fathers, I'd like to offer a simple proposal: a partial return by today's wimpy dads to the skills and styles used by the classic pops of the '50s and '60s -- those gruff, Army-toughened, car-waxing, hammock- snoozing, barbecue-apron-wearing handymen who now get bad press just because they wouldn't get within 50 feet of a loaded diaper. In addition (this part may be controversial), I'm recommending that you dads emulate only their negative qualities. You're already being too nice for your child's own good, and if this experiment is to have any effect, there must be contrast and shock value. "But how?" you ask. "It's been years since I've been subjected to brutal psychological shaping." It's simple. Here are a few exercises to get you started.

Dealing With the Mommy Problem. My feeling on this is: Why waste her time and yours with a lot of verbose "explanations" about a life-style change she will neither welcome nor understand? Theater people say it best -- "Show me, don't tell me" -- and what you want to try for is an escalating-outrage effect that will leave her speechless. Do something awful, and when she comes to complain about it, have something worse in the works, as in this easy-to-do scenario:

Mom: (Enters holding child's car seat; judging by bulging forehead veins, she is upset.) Mark, what happened to this? And what are you doing?

Dad: (Mixing spackling compound in her copper stockpot.) I used it as a oil-drain pan -- So WHUT? (Drains a Schlitz, burps, leaves house for three days.)

If she doesn't "get the message," you can also: Fill the front yard with rusted-out cars and busted washing machines that you plan to "fix"; make an irreparable gouge in the dining room's hardwood floor with a drum sander; set the roof on fire with Roman candles; sledgehammer a big hole in the basement wall for no stated reason and, last but not least, buy your boy a mini-bike plastered with a big orange-and-black sticker that says: "Helmet laws reek."

A Touchy Topic: Chemistry Sets. Are you gonna let some toy company's "age- labeling" fascist run your kid's life? Hell no! So buy him a deluxe set when he's 7 that contains instructions for making a table-top sulfur volcano.

Playing Ball With the Boy. When your son is 8, have him watch while you "kill" his soccer ball with an ice pick -- this is a ritual pronouncement that childhood is over, and it's time to play hardball. Next, take him to the nearest gravel-covered hardpan playground, place him at a distance not to exceed 15 feet and fire the baseball at the ground in front of his feet. He will either a) jump out of the way, or b) take a hot riser in the chest and start bawling. If he does a), yell "C'mon! Stay down on those!" If b), yell "C'mon! Walk it off!" When winter comes, repeat this exercise by rocketing a rock-hard frozen football at his sternum.

Coming of Age: Ping-Pong. One of the watershed moments in the relationship between a son and his traditional dad is the day the kid finally wins, which usually occurs around age 10. AVOID predictable responses. Even if he "skunks" you with maddening spins or smirks when your "slams" buzz two feet over his head, do not throw your paddle at him. This will only increase his satisfaction. Instead, use this dandy two-pronged assault. Sigh and say, "I guess you won't be needing kid stuff anymore," then haul off his favorite toys to Goodwill. And, "Good! Fine! Now that you're a 'man' you can start pickin' up some SLACK around here!" This allows you to assign him to clean out the basement, flush the car radiator, sweep the gutters and do all your other most hated chores.

That's it for now. If you still have custody of one next year, we'll look at How to Handle Sullen Teens. ::