Some years ago, a friend of mine was mulling over a new concept: She called it guilt-free parenting, and the idea was that the parent should not be held responsible if the child got caught in some embarrassing or downright criminal activity. She wasn't talking responsible in the legal sense. She meant in the social sense.

Under her theory, you should still be able to hold your head up high around the swimming pool because the child, not you, committed the crime and what your child does should not drag you down. This theory, of course, flies in the face of a weapon that parents have used since the dawn of time to terrorize wayward children, which is to brace the child, look to the heavens, and say, "How could you do this to your family?"

That's the last thing that a kid facing an unpleasant proceeding is thinking about, but sadly, it's all too often the only thing that the parents are thinking about.

Which brings us to George and Barbara Bush, who are facing the painful ordeal of having their son, Neil, investigated in the most public of fashions for his activities as a member of the board of directors of Silverado Banking, Savings & Loan, a busted Denver thrift that is going to cost taxpayers about $1 billion in bailouts.

The key political question -- and Bush's second term could ride on it -- is this: Will the sins of the son be visited on the father? Is that fair?

At this point, the son's sins are in dispute. One of the things operating in favor of the rogues who plundered the savings and loan industry is that they operated complicated shell games with depositors' funds that often make the criminal aspects of their activities hard to understand.

Regulations were so loose, conflicts of interest were so easily overlooked, that the crooks can say they complied with federal regulations and use that to excuse the shabbiest of insider dealings.

Some of the allegations against Bush involve complicated transactions. According to documents released this week by the Office of Thrift Supervision, Bush asked Silverado in 1986 to approve a $900,000 line of credit to a company owned by Kenneth Good, a Colorado businessman, for an oil and gas venture in Argentina.

Bush informed the other Silverado directors that he and Good had a business relationship, but the OTS alleges that he did not notify the directors that he and Good were partners in the Argentinian venture through separate companies they controlled. Other allegations against Bush are not so complicated. One is that Good lent him $100,000 in 1984, before he became a director of Silverado, with the understanding that he would not have to repay the loan unless the investment it was intended for returned a profit.

That's my kind of loan.

Wouldn't we all like to have associates who would just hand over $100,000 for us to play "investment" with? Good forgave the loan a year before Bush became a Silverado director and Bush has said he did not vote on any transactions involving Good. He is just getting around to telling the Internal Revenue Service about the loan on this year's tax return, however. That agency takes a dim view of funny money. Bush, in the most damning phrase to emerge from his mouth so far, acknowledged that it was "an incredibly sweet deal." It'll be interesting to see what the IRS calls it.

Yesterday's Washington Post quoted a Republican operative involved in the upcoming elections as making this prediction: "I am afraid Neil Bush is going to become the saving and loan poster child . . . . Until now, people didn't understand it. Joe Sixpack couldn't get a handle on the scandal. A $100,000 loan 'magically' forgiven -- that is something that every Joe on the street can understand . . . . Everyone got a sweet deal but the measly taxpayer."

A Democratic congressman predicted in the same article that Neil Bush would become a "metaphor for an entire decade of greed, mismanagement and excess." He said Bush would help the Democrats define the scandal.

The Democrats would be wise not to be too heavy-handed, too soon, in tarring George Bush with the sins of his son. He is going to have a lot of sympathy from people who have had their own share of grief from their own children. His son was wheeling and dealing while Bush was vice president and he apparently didn't bend over backward to make sure he didn't do anything that would reflect badly on his family. That's got to hurt.

In an era characterized by courtesy and civility, using Neil Bush against his father and the Republicans might have been considered dirty pool. But George Bush and the Republicans are the ones who used Willie Horton as their poster child in the campaign against Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.

It's not going to be a pretty sight, but it if happens, George Bush has it coming.