A lesson learned one New Year's Eve

It was the first time we had left our boys at home alone on New Year's Eve. We thought they were big enough to act responsibly.

''You may stay up to welcome in the New Year, but you're to go to bed right after midnight,'' we told them. Leaving them the phone number where we could be reached, my husband and I drove off to attend a party at the home of some friends.

At midnight the boys heard some fireworks in the neighborhood. They wanted to join in the fun too, but couldn't find noisemakers. So they went to the kitchen, grabbed a couple of pans and spoons, and started banging away. What a glorious noise they made. They ran outside with their noisemakers shouting, ''Happy New Year! Happy New Year!'' Soon the neighborhood din died down, and the boys, remembering their instructions, put away the pans and spoons and went to bed.

It wasn't until a day or two later that I noticed it. On the copper bottom of one of my best frying pans were numerous little marks - dents! What could have happened to my beautiful pan, the wedding gift of a dear friend?

The investigation that followed my cry of disbelief resulted in a confession by one of my sons. He said he was sorry, but I wouldn't let it rest. I got angry and scolded him: ''How could you be so destructive? Just look at what you've done to my beautiful pan! It was a wedding gift, too. Daddy and I thought we could trust you to behave while we were away. Now I don't know if we'll ever be able to leave you alone again.'' And on . . . and on . . . .

Although my son was pretty quiet during my tirade, emotion was building on both sides. Finally I challenged him: ''Well, what do you have to say for yourself?'' He looked at his feet and sighed. ''But Mother,'' he said, ''it's only a pan.''

I think I stammered something more about the pan having been a wedding gift. But my son's words, ''It's only a pan,'' have come to thought many times in the intervening years.

Although I couldn't admit it then, I began to realize how ineffective my scolding had been. I was trying to impress my son with the seriousness of his actions and expected him to be repentant. Instead, all I succeeded in doing was to lose control and convince him that I valued a kitchen pan more than I did him. I also realized that my son had not been naughty - he had just used poor judgment in selecting a noisemaker.

A rational explanation of why he shouldn't bang on kitchen pans with metal spoons would have prevented a repetition of the incident, I felt sure. If I had planned ahead for their evening at home alone, I might have had some more acceptable noisemakers on hand, and the boys wouldn't have had to resort to kitchen pans.

Why is it we so often feel the need to place the blame? Isn't this sometimes the reason parents scold their children? All that's really important is to correct unacceptable behavior in the most effective way.

Sometimes the most effective way may be to withhold a privilege, if ''gentle persuasion'' proves ineffective. It may even seem best to let children make mistakes now and then, provided their personal safety is not in question. Parents, too, often learn from their mistakes, as I did that New Year's Eve.

Recently one of my sons, now the father of a 10-year-old, told me of an incident in which he'd lost his ''cool'' in trying to correct his son's behavior. He felt he'd handled the situation badly.

''What would you have done, Mother?'' he asked. (What a humbling, but gratifying experience it is to be asked advice in child rearing by your own child!) I couldn't help smiling as I answered his question with another: ''Do you think scolding does much good?''

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