WHEN MY CHILDREN were small and I was reading to them -- one of life's warmest moments -- our favorites included a book entitled, "Are You My Mother?" Now it rests somewhere in our attic; someday perhaps I will read it to grandchildren.

A little yellow bird falls out of the nest and wanders around on the ground, gamely searching for its mother. He approaches a dog. Are you my mother? No, you are not my mother. He confronts a cow, a steam shovel, other large objects. Are you my mother? The children would recite with me: "No-o-o. You are not my mother."

The story ends happily, of course, a very satisfying expression of something deep which every child feels -- indeed, everyone feels. Years later, it occurred to me that the little yellow bird's earnest question approximates a search which shapes and sometimes confuses adult lives too. Out of the nest, on our own, we continue to approach places and situations with the hopeful question: Are you my mother?

Some of us join clubs and teams. Some join the Army. Many of us go to work for large and complicated business organizations and pretend that the company is like a mother.

What do we want from a mother? Contradictory desires: someone who will tell us what to do with ourselves and someone who cares deeeply, permanently, completely about our welfare. "Being controlled and being cared for:" as Richard Sennett put it in his important essay, "Authority."

Okay. Like the little yellow bird, I figured out a long time ago that The Washington Post is not my mother. I assume that most people who work for IBM figure out, soon enough, that IBM is not their mother either. Or Westinghouse of Xerox or the Department of State. A modern organization, even if it were to try the long-ago repudiated strategy of paternalism, cannot recreate the same dynamic compact of caring-and-controlling which exists in a real family.

And yet, as Sennett suggests, the family resemblance is important, powerfully suggestive of how individuals approach the large bureaucracies and institutions in our society -- and of what happens inside them. When their expectations of family are disappointed by reality, many individuals react like cranky children, stubbornly replaying the same behavior which seemed to work for them when they were little: tantrums, apple polishing, whatever. As I get older and understand a little more about people (including myself), I sometimes think the only essential question about most individuals is whether they can get beyond those tactics learned at their family dinner table.

The question has serious social implications. For when critics complain about the impersonal qualities of large organizations, they often confuse the subject by superimposing their own family memories. If Daddy was a tyrant, they yearn for a Stalinist boss. If their own family was loose and free-wheeling, they dream mushily of a leaderless corporate office which resembles a Maoist commune. Wrong dreams, bond to disappoint.

But there is "family" of sorts in large organizations, a rich tumbling and jousting among its members trying to define their roles and how the "family" runs, a mutual compact that works. This process is dynamic and, at the risk of reckless optimism, I think the company office is probably one of the unnoticed fronts of change in American life, full of exciting possibilities. The literature of "The Organization Man," articulated so brilliantly by William Whyte and by David Riesman and others in the '50s, needs updating. Children in offices are struggling among themselves today, a fascinating encounter which might just redefine social expectations for the rest of the country.

Unlike a real family, an office brings together strangers and makes them cooperate. We all grew up at different dinner tables, in different corners of America, absorbing different versions of the past, different expectations of the future. Where did we first meet? Not on the playgrounds, for we played on opposite sides of town, kept apart by the established social distances between our families. We had brief encounters at school or college or perhaps in the army but these were temporary passages.

No, we really met first in the office where we work. Of all places. The conversations always begin with a presumption that, according to the mythology, we are all pretty much alike, if not equal, sharing the same general viewpoints. After all, here we are, all doing the same sort of work. The more we talk, we discover from awkward collisions and misunderstandings that we are not alike. Each brought conflicting memories, aspirations, even language to the office. Office life, on an unspoken level rarely confronted, is a running dispute about those differences.

I think of three representative types, three sons who grew up in different families and met first at the office. The first son is the child of middle-class comfort and advantage, whose father also worked in an office. Since the father was a company man, the child learned the language of offices at the dinner table: how to negotiagte, what to expect. He is at ease in this world, but perhaps also oddly detached about it. His idea of success is complicated by the fact that his father was already successful before him, perhaps his grandfather too. Furthermore, buried in his memory is a lingering resentment. As a child, he saw the "company" as a rival family, competing for his father's time and devotion. Remembering that jealousy, the company son resists making the same full-hearted commitment himself.

Working alongside, both cooperating and competing, is the immigrant's son whose father worked in the mill, not the office. He is perhaps Catholic instead of Protestant, probably has brothers who are still working in the mill and certainly remembers in personal terms what a difficult stuggle it was to get from one place to the other. Proud for himself and for his family, the immigrant son feels more pride, even gratitude, for the company which recognized his potential. He can't understand the phoniness of the company son expressing some sentiment like, "We're all in this together," when the immigrant's son knows well it's each man for himself. The immigrant son resents the natural advantages of the company son, the easy style and sure language, but he will try to overcome them with greater dedication. He calls the executive viced president "Boss."

The third son is black. There are only a few from his special past in most corporate offices so he feels especially chilly dealing with the other two types. His parents may have been middle-class, they may have been working-class. Either way, his memories are distant from the others because of America's history of racial separation and inequality. The black son has learned to negotiate the new language of office life among whites but he might also use his other language occasionally -- talking black to bewildered colleagues -- either defensively or desparagingly. The "white dudes" have trouble understanding him sometimes which he sometimes enjoys. The black son approaches the "company" with much more complicated expectations. Part of him is proud and grateful. Part of him is ever suspicious.

Now the three sons are joined by a fourth co-worker -- and she confuses them, just as they clumsily insult her. The daughter might have grown up in the same families with the company son or the immigrant son or the black son -- but it doesn't matter. She is still an outsider because she is female. She listens to their familiar banter and their serious talk about "company" work and she hears male metaphors of sex and sports. Chances are, she did not play on the baseball team or sit in the locker room and hear the coach's blistering halftime pep talk. She probably did not grow using casual expressions of male potency and sexual triumph. Some women adapt. You will hear some women say, "Swing from the heels." "Running interference." "She's got balls." The daughter brings to the office the same variations of family memories, complicated by the sexual difference, perhaps the racial difference, too. For the first time really in our social history, a daughter can grow up and do her father's work. That thought embraces wonderful possibilities, but it still seems conditional. She can -- if the "company" is genuine in its promises, if her co-workers will treat her equally.

Office talk, as I am trying to suggest, is not just office talk, but a kind of social dialogue with rich implications for new understanding. Thanks to the social upheaval of the last generation and the pressures of political action, the "company" has become a kind of meeting ground -- tentatively at least -- where different voices are being heard. I am not pretending that the white-collar office has become an idealized melting pot, like those all-American foxholes in the old war movies; I know perfectly well that the mix is still heavily tilted toward white, Protestant company sons and perhaps they will always be favored. What's changing rapidly, however, is the company's own idea of what it needs in the office, both for social consent and for its own effectiveness. Companies have discovered, for instance, that company sons may talk better, but immigrant sons may be hungrier and, in any case, a mix of conflicting voices produces richer results than a single style and language. Conservatives will try to undo "affirmative action" and they may even succeed but I do not think they can silence this extraordinary dialogue or reverse its social implications. The idea is too American.

Fundamentally, this mixing of different sons and daughters is a very old process in America, started with the first boatloads of diverse characters who landed here, lumped together despite their scattered origins and languages. But I think the corporate setting provides a different test of the American ideal and at least the possibility of new outcomes. From the very start, as the immigrants poured in, found a place and pursued prosperity, the American Dream has defined individual activity as the goal: to success on one's own terms, separate and independent from the whole, if that is possible. The strength of individualism endures, but the large and complicated institutions of our time demand a different goal of their members: cooperation, mutual interests, sharing, negotiating a new compact.

This idea intrigues me -- the possibility of cooperation and community as a rising value in American life and nutured, of all places, in company offices. Deep in our shared memories, that idea is different from what all of us learned as children.