IT HAPPENED early in the week at one of those huge discount stores that supply suburbanites with everything from Willie Nelson record albums and Maytag washing machines to peek-a-boo pajamas.

A tiny, 5-year-old boy with a tangled mop of red hair and carrot-colored freckles slipped a package of Bubble-Yum chewing gum into his pocket while his 8-year-old cousin kept watch. Outside, they divided and devoured the loot.

A few seconds later, the cousin confessed. He cracked during the ride home when his mother began asking questions about the symphony of pops and slurps coming from the back seat of the station wagon. The boy with red hair sat stone silent, his eyes fixed upon a hole in the top of his right tennis shoe.

That night, he begged his mother not to tell his father about what had happened. And she didn't, at first, not until the boy pleaded exhaustion, skipped dinner and his favorite dessert and was in bed before "The Dukes of Hazzard" had a chance to complete one car chase scene. The boy's behavior caused his father to ask what was wrong.

The next morning, the boy stayed in bed until his dad had gone to work.

That leaves tonight for the showdown. When I finish writing this and go home, the red-haired boy will be waiting. His mother already has scolded him, but I too, am expected to say something; hopefully so profound that my son will be spared a life of crime.

It will not be easy. I remember what my father told me after I confessed to stealing 24 pumpkins from a neighbor's patch when we lived in Buffalo, Okla., including a giant hybrid that was sure to capture first prize at the Harper County fair. I was about 5 years old, too. If I stole anything again, my father said bluntly, I'd be whipped. His was a pre-Spock philosophy.

I am not my father. I am one of those young parents who've always proclaimed that I was going to do a better job with my children than my parents did with me. But how?

Many of my friends do not have children nor do they want them. "Why do you want to be a breeder?" a friend once joked. "Just look at the misery the Hinckleys are going through," an associate recently warned. "Who wants to bring up a child in a world like this? And the expense -- I mean, really, who can afford kids anymore?" another asked.

Ten years ago, they would have been the oddballs, not me. Now having children, especially more than two, seems to be out of style, especially in Washington where careers and wealth are worshiped.

Sometimes I envy my childless friends. I grow tired of never finishing a meal without using extra napkins to soak up spilled milk. I was embarrassed when one of my sons interrupted a tour guide recently at the National Gallery of Art to label the El Greco masterpiece before us a "yucky." And when friends call with tickets to a new play, I often resent having to say we can't go because it would be impossible to find a baby-sitter by curtain time.

But those moments always are brief.

There is something magical about being a parent. I first felt the mysterious bond when my son wrapped his miniature hand around one of my fingers a few minutes after he had come screaming into this world. He would not let go. This tiny, bloody creature would not let go.

Here was something that I helped make. Here was a piece of me.

Perhaps it is ego. Small children look upon you as a god, at first, before they learn better. Maybe children provide parents a chance to leave a mark on the world, to prove that we existed and mattered, if only to one other person. There are as many reasons, good and bad, for producing children as there are little red-haired boys.

But they change you. Suddenly, you are the role model, the example, the one who is supposed to have all the answers when your 5-year-old begins asking questions about everything or when he fills his pocket with Bubble-Yum.

So tonight, I will hold his tiny hand again and together we will return to the discount store. He probably will grip my hand as tightly tonight as he did after he was born. He will be scared. What he does not understand is that I too often have doubts and fears. Parents, too, often need a hand to grip.

When we reach the candy counter, I will explain that we have come to pay for some stolen gum. He will open his blue Batman billfold and carefully count out 26 of the pennies that he has been saving to buy more Stars Wars character dolls. We will return to the car and it will be time for me to say something profound.

I hope a simple "I love you" will be enough.