A 15-year-old Fairfax County lad is dead in the wake of a club initiation ritual, and parents throughtout the metropolitan area are shuddering a little and saying, "It could just as easily have been my boy."

Yes. It could have been anybody's boy because children are sensitive to peer pressure, and the pressure is greatest among males. It becomes terribly important for the boy to establish that he's no longer a boy, he's a man.

The prevailing attitude is that a dare must always be accepted - however foolhardy the action involved - because to do otherwise would be to admit cowardice.

There is a limit to how much parents can do to avert such dangers. You can warn your children that their peers will be testing them. You can help them achieve the mental preparedness that will enable them to respond with common sense. But you can't be overprotective, and you can't follow you child around all day.

What we must do, I think, is maintain a good low-key relationship with our children - a relationship in which we indoctrinate without appearing to preach, and in which we educate without becoming bores. Success depends as much on the example we set as on the words we use.

If we can keep the communication lines open, our children will develop mature judgment that will serve them throughout life - in choosing a job or a mate or a response to foolish dare. The trouble is that children can listen without really hearing, so it's not enough to say something once. You must say it early and often, yet somehow avoid becoming a nag. That's not an easy thing to do. But who eversaid that being a parent is easy?