THEY WERE COMING BACK from a ride in the country, the child and his father, when the child said he knew the meaning of a certain four-letter word that means, among a great many other things, sexual intercouse. The child is young, 6 or so, and could not possibly know the meaning of the word and so the father, not one to panic easily, said, "Oh yeah, what does it mean?" The kid told him. At first, the father felt shocked and surprised and then, later, something else entirely. He felt robbed.

Understand. Understand that he was going to be the one to tell his son, do for him what his own father had not done, or, to be precise, had done so late in the game that he felt tempted to tell his father a thing or two. It had happened that way with all of us, too, all my friends, each one being called in turn by our fathers who coughed through a sentence or two with the "ahems" properly spaced until we let them off the hook. This was not going to happen to us.

But it did. It's not that the child knew everything, but he's off to a good start and much earlier than anyone expected. The father wondered, of course, if this was his fault so he asked people, me included, and found out that no one knew any of this until age 10 or 11 or 12. That is when I found out, having been informed on the way home from school by a certain Mike who was not only a year older but was permitted to drink coffee. I want to tell you that kids who drink coffee speak with a certain authority and so I said that I believed what Mike told me, but I did not. From the way Mike described it, I thought I would much prefer to drink coffee.

Anyway, my friend asked his son where he had learned what he had learned and the kid fingered another kid. My friend then confronted that father of that kid, telling him what his kid was telling other kids. He did not tell him that he felt cheated, that he already had had the first two words of this little lecture already planned - "C'mere, son" - or that he now had to abondon his strategy of leaving little sex education pamphlets around the house on account of the fact that the kid is too young to read. He simply told him that it was his son who had spread the word. The other guy simply shook his head no and said it was the other way around. He lowered his voice and said, "Let me tell you something, your kid is not so naive. Your kid knows a lot of things."

The words sort of echoed - "Your kid knows a lot of things." How? From who? From whom? The guy felt like one of those mothers you read about in the newpapers, the one ones whose son is a mass murder arrested, maybe 16 times before and all the mother can say is "He's a good boy. He was always home at night and was making money as a paper boy." here the kid was into very serious sex and the father knew nothing about it.

That sort of thing happened once to me. It was maybe two years when the man who lives down at the end of the block came to the door one day, introduced himself as the man who lived at the end of the block, and said my son had been rolling up his turf. He had a lawn made of strips of turf for which he paid, think about a million dollars, and every day once in a while my son would come by and roll it up. The man would yell at my son and my son would run away and then sneak back and roll up the million dollar lawn.

"You've got a mean, bad kid, "the man who lived down the end of the block said. I looked down at my son who was sort of hiding behind my leg and all I could think of was those mothers in the newspaper. I wanted to tell him how my son was home every night and a paper boy to bout but I said nothing and instead helped him roll back his lawn.

This was not supposed to happen. Somehow, we were supposed to know better than repeat what the preceding generation had done - lose track of what was happening, lose control, all of a sudden find ourselves in our world, the children in theirs with their own little secrets. Something mysterious happens, somethingthat's very hard to explain - hard to figure, for instance, why all the boys in the neighborhood have suddenly taken to hating girls, yelling "ooh gross!" whenever the subject of femininity is brought up. Where did they come to this? They are all the children of enlightened fathers, liberated mothers. You cannot live in our neighborhood if you are a male chauvinist pig. It's in the zoning.

So now, like his father before him, my friend has moved too late! It's the sort of thing that gives you a new perspective on your own father. Kids get older quicker, wiser sooner all the time. Santa Claus can't make it past 6 anymore and the Easter Bunny is scoffed at earlier than that, and kids know the meaning of words I never heard of until I was twice their age. They talk a good game, but it is one thing to know a little something about sex and quite another think to know how to handle it.

I'm waiting for the kids to tell me.