The boy is only 12 -- somewhere between babe and man. He likes his new neighborhood, his new friends and his new bicycle. But he has trouble with his father.

They argue about rock-and-roll, which the father loathes, about the company the boy is keeping and the church he is attending.

The father wants to move. The boy resists and runs away, telling his mother that "it is my business" where he is going.

Ordinarily, under American law and the American ethic, the question would not even be close. The parents are boss. The kid is a kid.

But this "kid" is Walter Polovchak. The place the parents want to go is back to the Ukraine, from which they emigrated just seven months ago. And to a lot of people, everything is different.

The courts of Illinois have allowed the boy to remain with a cousin for three weeks now, away from his parents, instead of returning the youngster to them as courts ordinarily would do. The U.S. government has granted the boy political asylum, allowing him to stay if the courts agree.

And the media have made him a symbol of the thirst for freedom, of "here is better," as the boy explained it, of the political and ideological struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Parents Anna and Michael Polovchak, in their Chicago apartment, see it in simpler terms as they wait out the court fight: "Who really tells the children what to do?" Anna Polovchak asked the judge through an interpreter. "Are the children the parents and the parents the children?"

"And who took apart the family Polovchak? Whoever destroyed the family of Polovchak?"

The family of Polovchak lives -- separately now -- in one of those miracles of urban ethnic America: a clean Eastern European town amid a crowded city.

The Ukrainian section on Chicago's West Side isn't what it used to be. Cyrillic signs -- for the Ukrainian bakery, the Ukrainian butcher, the Ukrainian savings and loan -- compete with "Notaria Latino Americano" and "Super Mercado."

But each new Ukrainian language book at the local branch library is still snapped up as soon as it arrives on the shelves, and the nine domes of the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral still dominate the neighborhood of brown brick duplexes and apartments.

There have been two major waves of Ukrainian immigration here. One was at the turn of the century and the other after World War II -- the flight from Soviet domination.

Since then, the wave has gradually become a trickle. The Polovchaks -- Michael, 42; Anna, 38; Natalie, 17; Walter, 12, and Michael Jr., 6 -- were part of the trickle.

Though the family had many relatives here who helped them emigrate, Michael remained aloof from the rest of the Ukrainian community, residents say, going silently to his 3 p.m.-to-midnight janitor's job just as Anna would return from her 7 a.m.-to-3 p.m. janitor's job at a nearby hospital.

Right away Michael started talking about leaving, a relative, Anastasia Junko, told the Chicago Tribune when the story first broke. "He hadn't seen the light of one whole day here and he announced he wanted to go back," she said. He complained about his job (he had been a bus driver in the Ukraine), he complained about the weather, he complained about the food.

For the boy, (he was called "Little Wally" to distinguish him from his 24-year-old cousin, Walter, with whom the family lived) it was very different.

He liked his public school, though he spoke almost no English. He played on a soccer team. He loved rides in cars particularly cousin Walter's car. Cousin Walter had also come to America at the age of 12. Now successful as a computer programmer, he may have represented the potential of America to the boy, said young Walter's lawyer, Julian Kulas.

"The children liked to get in the cousin's car and go for rides," Kulas said. "A ride in a car -- you have no idea what it means to someone who has lived in the Ukraine under Soviet domination. Freedom of movement. No identity checks. And he loved his new bicycle."

Cousin Walter also started taking the family to the Ukrainian Baptist Church on Sundays, though they were Easter Rite Catholics. The parents, apparently unhappy with the new religion, stopped going but the children continued, against the father's request.

That seems to have upset Michael, the father, as much as anything else, according to lawyers for both sides. When the father first met his American civil liberties union-related attorney, Richard Mandel, the first hand-scrawled note he handed him said: "Talya now a Baptist."

He also objected to the rock and roll. "He'd see Little Wally's body moving all over when the music played," Kulas said, "and he'd scream at him, "Turn off that garbage. Turn off that trash.'"

The father talked about returning to the Ukraine. But it wasn't taken too seriously until Cousin Walter, inspecting the phone bill, found records of calls to the Soviet Embassy.

Events happened fast after that. In early July, Kulas said, the children came home to find the father furious, "slamming doors and windows," saying he would get even with Cousin Walter for influencing the boy.

The cousin moved out, renting his own apartment in the same community. The next day, Natalie called him, Kulas said, and asked him to meet her two blocks away. (The father's lawyer said the cousin called her).

Both lawyers agree that as Natalie was leaving the house, the father ran after her, shouting. "He was swearing to me," Natalie testified through an interpreter. "He was saying ugly words to me, words that sound something like to be a prostitute.'

"You mean he called you a whore?, the lawyer asked. "Right," she said. "Whore."

Cousin Walter eventually showed up one afternoon with two friends and a rented trailer, had Natalie and Little Wally pack their things, and took them to live at his apartment.

"Why did you run away from home?" a lawyer asked the boy through an interpreter at a court hearing.

"My parents don't like me. They don't talk to me. And I was afraid they would take me back to the Ukraine. My father said if I won't go, he'll call the police, give them a hundred dollars and they will tie me up and put me on the airplane."

Two weeks after little Wally left, a television crew showed up at his mother's home and surprised her with a videotape of him riding his bicycle. Anna Polovchak wept.

As she wept, the crew taped her weeping. On the news that night, there they were on either side of a split screen: the boy playing, the mother weeping.

The parents say they will allow Natalie to remain here because she will soon be 18, old enough to decide. But they want the boy back.

Ordinarily in Illinois, a child may be removed from his parents if the parents don't want him, or if he is deemed "beyond their control" or a danger to society. Michael, the parents' lawyer and an expert in juvenile law, contends that Walter fits none of these categories.

Walter, he said, did no run away. He was, if effect, "taken" under the influence of Cousin Walter and Natalie. And there have been no charges of abuse made against the parents.

Am I a drunkard?" the father wondered to reporters earlier in the controversy. "I am not. Do I starve my children? I do not. Have I broken laws? I have not. So who is the government to take my child?"

Kulas and others supporting the boy respond that under the law young Walter is indeed a runaway, "beyond the control" of the parents and subject to being a ward of the state. That is what he says in court.

To the media, the argument of the boy's sympathizers is different and uncomplicated: "We are concerned about what becomes of kids who go back," said Kulas, one of the country's most prominent Ukrainian immigrants. "I would have sympathy if the father had a legitimate reason for leaving.

"But knowing what the child will be subjected to, I cannot have sympathy. I don't think Walter will get a higher education there. He will be looked upon with suspicion. If they go back, the door to freedom will shut."

Kulas' views appear to be shared by almost all of the Ukrainian Americans in the Chicago area who have spoken out so far on the issue. Maria Chychula, who conducts a daily Ukrainian language talk show, said that she has received only one call, out of hundreds, even vaguely sympathetic to the parents' position.

Following the call, she said, "I had to handle a whole hour of calls from people suggesting that the first caller, sympathetic to the parents, go back to the Ukraine if he doesn't like it here.

"The community sees this not as a family situation, but a scheme, a game one country is playing with another. Most people suspect it's a communist plot that's been blown out of proportion."

"There are some saying that nothing can justify breaking up a family," said the Rev. Olexa R. Harbuziuk. "I say nothing can justify going back to the Ukraine."