The little girl doesn't understand.

A boy in her first-grade class has selected her as his recess quarry. All week he has pursued her, capturing her scarf, circling her with it, threatening to tie her up.

The look on her face as she tells us this story is puzzled and upset. She has brought home similar tales of playground encounters since Monday and laid them out across the dinner table.

My friend, who is her mother and amused by it all, explains again to the girl, "That's because he likes you." But she still doesn't understand.

Finally, the mother turns to me, because I have been through it before, seen the tears of another first-grader, offered the same motivations. "Tell her," says the mother in frustration.

I begin to form the analysis in my mind. I will tell her how the boy wants attention, doesn't know how to ask for it, only knows how to grab for it, confuses aggression with affection . . .

Then suddenly I stop.

I hear an odd echo from the words inside my head. What is it? An echo of a hundred generations of women interpreting males to their daughters? An echo of a hundred generations of women teaching their daughters the fine art of understanding human behavior?

All at once I find myself relectant to pass on this legacy. I am wary of teaching this little girl the way to analyze. I am not so sure at this moment that we should raise more girls to be cultural interpreters for men, for families.

I look at my friend. This woman is admirably skilled in the task of transmitting one person's ideas and feelings to another. Indeed, she operates the switchboard of her family life.

The people in her home communicate with each other through her. She delivers peace messages from one child to another. Softens ultimatums from father to son; explains the daughter to father. Under her constant monitoring, the communication lines are kept open; one person stays plugged into the next.

But sometimes I wonder whether she has kept all these people together or kept them apart. Does she make it easier for them to understand each other, or does she actually stand between them, holding all the wires in her hands?

Last week, I watched Katharine Hepburn play the same role magnificently in the scenes from "On Golden Pond." She placed herself between the angry, acerbic, viciously amusing husband (Henry Fonda) and the world. She was his buffer and his interpreter --to the gas station attendants, the postman, the daughter.

"He wasn't yelling at you," she tells the boy who comes to live with them. "He was yelling at life. Sometimes you have to look hard at a person and remember he's doing the best he can . .. just trying to find his way, like you."

Her caring was wondrous, inspiring, full of energy and love. But it was only when the boy confronted the old man, dialing directly, shortcutting the switchboard, that the man changed.

In Gail Godwin's new novel, "A Mother and Two Daughters," there is another aging mother, still negotiating between her two "children" who are now turning 40. She is like the woman in many of our autobiographies--the mother, or grandmother--behind the scenes.

How many families only know each other through these women? Some mothers, like the one in this movie and this book, have been forced to occupy the stormy fulcrum of family life, and others have chosen to be the power broker of human relationships.

Some actually keep people at peace, others keep them at bay. Sometimes the endless interpretation, especially of men by women, keeps couples together. Other times it keeps men from explaining themselves.

I know it is a skill to be able to understand and analyze one person's motives and psyche to another. It requires time, attention, emotional dexterity to run these switchboards. Yet it can also overload the operator and cripple the people from talking across their own private lines.

Today, anyway, I feel peculiarly unwilling to explain the first-grade boy to the first-grade girl, peculiarly unwilling to initiate the 6-year-old into this cult of communication.

I offer only friendship and sympathy. These are things she doesn't have to struggle to understand.