They were four; two couples, one walking ahead of the other, cutting through the sidewalk traffic of a steamy Saturday night. Casual in jeans, short-sleeve shirts and tightly belted waists, they had the look of people headed somewhere in particular. Incidentally, they were gay. They fit right in with most of the other couples on P Street west of Dupont Circle.

Usually, I try not to stare at people, but, in this case, I lost. One of them was a slight, young black man, leaning against his middle-aged, silver-haired date, head down, pressed against the older man's chest. He was half-way wrapped around his date, who held him tightly against his body.

It wasn't that they were gay or even that that one was black that left me studying them. As I see it, they're exercising freedom of choice. Laissez faire is certainly de rigueur around Washington on such matters.

No, it was because the young man looked so young. As we were passing, he looked up, and I was stunned. It was the chatty, friendly, eager-to-please kid who works in our neighborhood ice cream parlor.

We spoke, but by silent agreement offered no other signs of recognition. In the instant our eyes met, I remembered a recent spring night when he was dipping ice cream, running his mouth a hundred miles a minute when another neighbor, a tall, dignified middle-aged black man came in and asked how he was doing in school. All Ds and Fs, he said. The man dropped the subject. I picked it up.

What was wrong, I harangued. Didn't he realize this importance of a good education? Lots of kids would have made it clear that I was being a pain, but this kid politely shrugged and said high school really didn't interest him. Saturday night I saw why. Too much, too soon.

I thought of a conversation I'd had not long before about children in some of D.C.'s elementary schools falling asleep in class because they are tired from having been out on the block the night before.

Shocking? Not really. Kids do what they can get away with. Who doesn't remember challenging parents on curfews as soon as we felt we had muscle to flex? Most often we learned fast and finitely that our folks carried much bigger sticks that we realized, and they wouldn't hesitate to use them.

They laid down the law in my house, and my sister and I followed it, begrudgingly perhaps, but the result suited our parents.We did what they said. There was an added deterrent where I grew up, the town was small enough and the community close enough that far too many people knew you, and of their own accord felt responsible for you. Which translated to, if you hung around on the streets late at night, word might reach home before we did.

And, if it did, the old folks put it best, "That's all she wrote." The mere thought of what might be waiting at home was enough to put out the fire.

Then, too, we were constantly being reminded of what became of people who made a home of the streets. There were always plenty of examples to draw from. Often they were the very people who seemed to be having the best time to us kids. Still the point was made. Too much of what we called fun now meant too few rewards later.

But that message has been obscured. Likely it's the era, not the kids. They, like every generation before them, try to get away with as much as they can.

Teen-age pregnancies, rampant VD, the disciplinary nightmare in our schools speak to how much their success. Too many kids are doing whatever they choose whenever they see fit. And who in hell knows where the emergency brake is?

Still stunned after seeing the kid from the ice cream shop Saturday night, I looked back. He was looking back, too, probably wondering what I made of it and if I'd say anything about it the next time I saw him.

What I'd like to do is caution him, not in the same hell's fire way I was pinned to the straight-and-narrow, but by explaining the whys; that one earns fulfilling adulthood, not grows into it like a wild weed. He's probably stand still long to hear me out. But, like so many other adults that kids like him are growing up around, what I'll probably say is nothing.