Long ago, according to a popular children's tale, a young boy in Holland discovered a tiny leak in a dike. Knowing his town would be flooded if the dike broke, he stuck his finger in the hole, holding back the ocean until help arrived. The town was spared, and the boy was hailed as a hero.
Today, would-be heroes in this country are using similar finger-in-the-dike approaches as they seek to avert another kind of impending disaster, this one social. Desperate to protect children - and everyone else - from rising floodwaters of violence and aggressive behavior, politicians, executives, teachers, and parents are devising a variety of fingers, or plugs, to hold danger at bay.
One of the most widely publicized plugs is the V-chip, a device parents hope will keep violent television programs from flooding into their homes. For some families the chip, along with a new ratings system broadcasters accepted last week, may offer a solution of sorts. Yet what does the V-chip really do? It gives networks a green light to continue airing violent shows while requiring parents to hold their fingers permanently in the dike.
A similar stopgap attempt to shield children from violence centers around school uniforms. President Clinton last month touted uniforms as one way to ''get violence out of our schools.'' As a measure of his commitment to the idea, he announced that the Education Department would distribute how-to manuals to all 16,000 school districts in the country.
School uniforms may well offer certain advantages, creating order and equality in classrooms and promoting better behavior and grades. But uniforms will not by themselves ''get violence out of our schools'' because they do nothing to get violence out of the culture. When the prevailing American philosophy seems to be, ''A chicken in every pot and a gun under every pillow,'' it will take more than white shirts and navy pants - or metal detectors at the school door, another type of plug - to protect students.
A third finger-in-the-dike approach to altering aggressive behavior involves Ritalin, widely prescribed for children considered to have attention deficit disorder. Between 3 and 5 percent of all American schoolchildren take the drug, according to a report released last week by the International Narcotics Control Board. Because most recipients are male, between 10 and 12 percent of all 6-to-14-year-old boys in this country are on Ritalin. The United States accounts for about 90 percent of all Ritalin consumption.
This so-called solution produces two problems. First, using pills to modify behavior allows parents and professionals to conveniently avoid a fundamental question: Just why are so many children out of control today, anyway? Research has failed to prove a long-assumed connection between sugar or additives and hyperactivity. Some researchers see more likely links between caffeine and other stimulants that increase children's activity. Even staying up too late can produce negative effects on youthful behavior, they say, as can a lack of parental attention.
Second, if children become accustomed to taking drugs for their behavioral problems - ''Don't forget your Ritalin, dear'' - should anyone be surprised when teenagers not only abuse these pills but also seek other mood-altering drugs? Today, Ritalin. Tomorrow, marijuana and Prozac. The drug culture marches on.
In the fictional account of the Dutch boy holding back the sea, men with tools eventually fixed the dike itself. But in real-life America, the answer often appears to involve plugging holes rather than shoring up the social and moral infrastructure. To do that will require a cultural shift - a national willingness to address seriously such issues as the continuing proliferation of violent entertainment, the widespread disregard for poor children caught in the crossfire of welfare reform, and the need for more adults willing to take a deep interest in the well-being of young people of all ages and classes.
Desperate hopes need more than frivolous solutions. The cleverest stopgap measures can never be enough when what is called for is a change of priorities and heart.