These are the times that try parents' souls. All around the beltway last weekend, perfectly sensible parents stood huddled beneath gray, unfriendly skies, cheering on thousands of children who swarmed across the area's soccer fields. Now that winter is here, you can separate the men from the boys, the soccer parents from the part-time parents.

The part-time parents stay home.

The soccer parents come to the games.

Up until now, going to soccer games has been fun. The weather has been terrific and while there are better ways to spend an autumn afternoon, it beats weeding. That, however, is no longer the case. When you are weeding, you can at least go into your house to get warm. If you sneak into your car at a soccer game, you feel like a coward.

Last weekend, I met a mother who is into her first season of soccer. She stood shivering next to the sidelines, shouting encouragement to her son, shifting her weight from foot to foot as though she were trying to keep her toes from getting frostbitten. "It gets worse?" she said, a note of horror in her voice.

After eight years or so of living with a soccer player, I have learned several things, one of which is that November is a good month to leave town. If that cannot be arranged, the next best thing is to throw vanity to the wind and wear everything you can find: boots, gloves, scarves, long underwear, several pairs of socks, ski masks, and so forth. Take a thermos of hot coffee to the games, but don't bother with a chair. You will be too cold to sit still.

I have also learned something else. It is now possible to watch parents at a soccer game and tell whether the little right forward is their firstborn or whether he or she is a younger child with a couple of siblings to help fulfill the parents' great expectations.

The first child of truly committed soccer parents is the child whose parents attend every game in full voice. If they aren't yelling at their offspring to get in position or to get the ball or to shoot at the goal, they are yelling at the referees or the opposition. The soccer fields are living proof of American know-how: entire generations of parents who never played the game have become instant experts.

Fathers and mothers, both, pace up and down the sidelines, shouting instructions, reaching a veritable crescendo whenever the ball comes anywhere near their child, or more to the point, where he is supposed to be. More often than not, the little right forward has taken off toward left field and is busily following the swarm of children headed right toward his empty position. And by the time he arrives, the chase has long gone, and his parents are standing on the sidelines hollering, "WHERE WERE YOU? THAT WAS YOUR BALL!" Patience is not the committed soccer parents' long suit.

Each year, well-meaning coaches send notices out to parents urging them to support the team with positive reinforcement. Parents are warned not to yell at the referees, the coaches, the children, or, heaven forbid, each other. This advice goes out the window by the first October wind. All quite understandably.

No mimeographed note is going to make a dent when the little right forward shows signs of talent that could blossom into greatness with just a little more coaching from the parents. And it is amazing, particularly with the firstborn, what constitutes signs of talent. Chests swell around the beltway over sudden bursts of speed. Tales of great saves are taken to Saturday night parties. Visions of contracts and scholarships dance in our heads.

But time has a marvelous way of producing fewer illusions and more children. As years go by you realize that your firstborn son or daughter might be the second coming of Pele, and might become the dean of the Harvard Law School, but the chances are the youngster will not be both. Once you understand this, a lot of pressure is off.

Now as I face the bone-chilling cold I can at least enjoy the fruits of past seasons. My son the teen-ager's games are fun to watch, and woe to the parents who try to coach those players from the sidelines. As for the little ones, well, the next wave of committed soccer parents is out there, just like we were, pacing and shouting their firstborns to glory. Those of us who have been through it before may frown at excessive zeal or we may chuckle. But in our hearts we know that there but for the grace of time go we.