THE FIRST TIME I remember having the thought was in the Army. I was standing at attention during inspection while below me there was this officer, a captain, poking around in my foot locker, checking out my underwear. He moved the stuff around a bit and I looked down from the corner of my eye and I remember getting the thought: Is this any work for a grown man?

Since then, I've had the thought lots of times.Most recently it came into my head when I was interviewing a guy who works for the American Tobacco Institute, the public relations arm of the tobacco lobby. The guy was going on and on about how the government really hadn't made a case against cigarettes when that old thought popped into my head: Is this any work for a grown man?

There's nothing sexist about the thought. I get it when I see Playboy bunnies or gossip columnists or the judges at beauty contests and most recently it popped into my head when I thought of the people who make television commercials for children. I mean, is getting kids to get their parents to buy some cereal that's bad for their teeth any sort of work for a grown mn?

The question arises because of the attempt by the Federal Trade Commission to either ban or somehow restrict television commercials directed solely at children. What particularly concerns the FTC are commercials for breakfast cereals and between-meal snacks for products so loaded with sugar they are nearly nutritiously worthless, but terrific at rotting teeth. What the FTC and others are saying is that kids are soft touches, easy marks who don't have the knowledge or the savvy to realize that they are being peddled junk. Some kids really believe that there is a little man in the television set talking just to them -- an idea I would have disputed when I was a child. I thought he was in the phonograph.

The FTC proposal generated a howl of protests you would not believe. It resulted almost immediately in the court saying that the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, Michael Pertschuk, cannot rule on this matter because he had already made up his mind. Having disposed of Pertschuk, the industries involved -- breakfast foods, candies, television and advertising -- then turned their guns on the proposal itself. It is, they say, unconstitutional, illegal, silly and downright un-American. Not to mention a further example of more and more government -- government as a nanny, they call it.

Much of what they say has a certain appeal. There is something offensive about curtailing speech, even commercial speech, but more than that there is something really troubling about the government doing for parents what they should be doing for themselves -- saying no. That, after all, is what it comes down to. The kids may see the commercials, but it is the parents who buy the products. Say no, dammit. Tell your kid that hell will freeze over and Jimmy Carter will become a dialect comedian before a box of snappy, sugary, crunchies comes into your house. Be a man, for crying out loud.

But what emerges after a while is an image, an image of a bunch of grown people, many of whom have advanced degrees in the behavioral sciences, sitting around, trying to figure out how to fool or entice children -- how to get them to get their parents to buy something. There is something very unappealing about this picture, something that is far more repulsive than government by manny -- whatever that is.

The more you listen to the industries involved, the more obnoxious the whole thing begins to sound. They have, they have all but said, the unrestricted right to use our airwaves to sell products to our children. They make it sound as if it's the American way -- just another little curious twist in the free enterprise system in which grownups can make patsies of kids and one of them went so far the other day as to say that if kids get fooled by commercials, it's a valuable leasson. This is the hard knocks school of education -- caveat emptor applied to 6-year-olds. It wasn't easy, but advertising hit a new low.

The point, of course, is that the airwaves belong to the public and it is not totally irresponsible to suggest that they be used, at least when it comes to children, in a responsible manner. Television is a potent selling tool. Parents have a responsibility to say no, but they also have a right to question why they have to keep saying no -- why some of them are in a constant argument with this box in their house.

Maybe banning the commercials is not the answer and maybe some sort of industry self-regulation is, but certainly there is something unfair about grownups taking advantage of kidsand then insisting they have a constitutional and almost God-given right to do it. It's the opposite of taking candy from a baby, but just as easy and it makes you want to ask people involved if they are proud of what they do. I mean, is this any work for a grown man?