IN CHICAGO, Walter Polovchak, 12 years old and evidently with a mind of his own, has announced that he would rather remain in America without his parents than return to the Soviet Union with them. As a result, he has been given political asylum here, setting up a classic confrontation over children's rights and making Walter, maybe, the first kid ever to defect from his family for political reasons. Think of the possibilities.

The case is a complicated one. Walter and his family emigrated about six months ago. The father, unhappy here, has decided to return to his native Ukraine, and take most of his family with him -- his wife, Walter, and a 6-year-old son, Michael. (A 17-year-old daughter has decided to stay beind.)

Walter greeted the news by running away. He hid out with cousins in the Chicago area until found by the cops and, in due course, the newspapers. "Here is better than my country," he declared with simple eloquence, ticking off such reasons as school, friends and a new bike -- no small matter to a 12-year-old.

Walter's intransigence put the entire family before officialdom and left his poor father dumbfounded. He assumed, as fathers have through the ages, that where he went his family would follow and he, for one, was going back to the Ukraine. With evident pain he says his son is being "kidnaped." While that may or may not be the case it is true that as matters stand now, he is being asked to choose between his son and his homeland.

What is troubling about this case is that it does not involve the usual reasons that either allow or compel authorities to separate a child from his family. No one yet has spoken about brutality or abandonment or neglect. Instead, the topic of discussion is what you could call politics. The destination Walter's father chose for him was the Soviet Union. Had his father chosen England instead, no one would be before the courts and the Chicago papers would have been silent on the matter.

To the Soviets, the case must be stunning, and to appreciate how they view it, you only have to ask what would happen if the shoe were on the other foot. What would happen, for instance if a family wanted to emigrate from the Soviet Union to America but was held up by a 12-year-old kid who cited his friends, his school and his bike? What would happen, of course, is that we would all cheer if the father took the kid by the ear and hauled him across the ocean squealing in pain. Some dicisions are too important to be left to kids.

Some decisions, however, are too important -- or too irrevocable -- to be left to adults. There are some things parents cannot do, or should not be able to do. A trivial example that comes to mind is giving a child some idiotic name that seems at the moment to be a good idea. I cite for example, america Hoffman, the child of former Yippie Abbie Hoffman, who will have to explain all his life how he got the name and why it is spelled with a small "a."

The Polovchak dilemma is, of course, more profound. Walter might have had to spend the rest of his life in the Soviet Union and, while he talks now of schools and bikes and such things, he would have learned later that the critical difference between Soviet and American life is not any of those but instead, freedom. The question really is whether a parent has a right, for reasons of his own, to condemn a child to a lifetime in a totalitarian country.

It's not an easy question to answer. If the answer for Walter is to remain in America, why should it be different for his little brother simply because he is still to young to have voiced an opinion of where he would like to live? After all he, too, would have to live out his life in the Soviet Union. In fact, the same sorts of questions could be asked of parents embarking for places like the gruesom Jonestown or, for that matter, anywhere a child will live poorer materially of, more important, spiritually.

Rarely is the decision irrevocable. In the case of little Walter it is. What would be missing for him would be the all-important element of choice. By staying in America, he retains just that -- choice. He can always decide later where he wants to live.

For everyone involved, the choices have been awful -- family versus country. But Walter has chosen well. It's not that a boy doesn't need his family. It's rather that a man needs his freedom. CAPTION:

Picture 1, Walter Polovchak at hearing . . . ; Picture 2 and at play on his new bicycle.