IT SHOULDN'T have been too much to hope that after all Elian Gonzalez had been through--a shipwreck, the drowning of his mother, the hours adrift at sea--someone would act selflessly and apolitically in his interests. In the past few days, however, the grown-ups purporting to speak for the 6-year-old have sounded depressingly like 6-year-olds themselves.

When his grandmothers flew in from Cuba, they and the Miami family members with whom he is staying were unable even to arrange a meeting; yesterday the Immigration and Naturalization Service had to order that one take place on neutral ground. The Cuban government and Miami exile community both have been milking the issue for political points while piously accusing the other of doing the same. Congress now would compound the irresponsibility by seeking to confer citizenship upon the boy. All profess to be acting on Elian's behalf while adding to a political tangle that cannot be helpful to him.

The issue should have been settled with the arrival of the grandmothers. The idea of sending anyone back into a dictatorship is painful. But a child is better off with a loving father, even in a tyranny, than parentless in a democracy. Part of the concern with returning Elian had been the possibility that his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, was not speaking his mind when he insisted that he wanted Elian back. Having the grandmothers come in his place is an imperfect solution; they may still not be free to say what the family really wishes. But there is no evidence of that. This is as good a procedure as it is going to be possible to find.

A citizenship bill, if passed, would turn an immigration dispute into a custody fight, effectively denying the administration the ability to deal quickly and under the broad discretion the immigration laws afford. But a protracted custody battle in Florida courts will do Elian no good. President Clinton should make clear that he will veto any legislation intended to thwart the normal process.

In the meantime, everyone ought to step back and remember what is at stake. This is not about Fidel Castro, the embargo, the evils of dictatorship or the inequities of immigration law. It is about one small child who has already been through too much. The weight of Cuban-American tensions is too much to place on his back.