SCROOGE WAS, of course, right. If he wanted to rescue Tiny Tim, the place to start was at a grocery store and with that huge turkey. Malnutrition allows disease to triumph much too easily. But having improved the grocery situation, what does Scrooge do next?

The holidays of this season are more closely bound than any others in the calendar to family tradition and concern for children. It's a good time to give at least a moment's thought to the children that live beyond the circle of your own family. Some of them are in great need, and not all of those are far away.

Generally speaking, the most dire and dramatic examples call for the simplest remedies. The children in the Ethiopian refugee camps need food, and any more subtle requirements can wait until that first compelling priority has been fulfilled. Throughout the developing countries, nearly 5 million children die each year from three familiar diseases -- measles, tetanus and whooping cough -- for which there are effective vaccines, according to the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children's Fund. A complete course of vaccination would cost no more than $5 for each child. Here it's not merely a matter of sending supplies from abroad, but establishing new practices in the normal health standards and routines of a country.

That leads to the more complicated matter of education. The World Bank pointed out several years ago that one of the most important things that a society can do to reduce its infant mortality rate is to teach girls to read. The children of a literate mother have a strikingly better chance of survival than the children, living in the same place at the same level of income, of a mother who remains illiterate.

But the answers get less easy as the questions come closer to home. It's no longer a matter of sending basic foodstuffs and medicines with which this country is well supplied. The educational requirements for living in this country lie well beyond basic literacy. The United States has not entirely succeeded in eliminating malnutrition, but the hunger that remains is not the sort that can be met by sending a shipload of grain to the nearest port.

In a rich country like this one, there are many children who are perfectly healthy and yet neglected by the communities in which they live. Government agencies have their contributions to make, but there is crucial work to be done by individual citizens in their own cities and neighborhoods. It requires expenditures of one's own time, energy and thought -- commodities that are harder to come by than wheat and corn. Much of this kind of work goes on every day. Much more of it is needed.

Concern for the condition of children rises in this country in the hard times, when unemployment is high and money is short. It seems to fall in the periods of prosperity, like the present one, although resources are more easily available and the numbers of children in distress are hardly much lower. That's another reason to think carefully, at this time of this year, about children -- and not only children in other countries.