AMERICANS used to be child crazy. They were dotty about babies, and school-aged children were idolized, even mythologized as Amy March, as Beaver Cleaver, as Penrod and Sam. While adults weren't as smitten with adolescent behavior, they knew that if they hung in there, their patience would be rewarded. They had every reason to expect that as their teenage offspring matured, they would become--by the end of their second or the beginning of their third decade--full- fledged, productive citizens, capable of adult work, love, and responsibility.

Children were entitled to a long and sheltered childhood, but today we're seeing a change. According to Marie Winn's fascinating and persuasive new book, Children Without Childhood, we have entered an anti-child era that lacks clear generational distinctions, a time in which children grow up fast and become sharp, savvy, self-assured mini-adults before they're out of grade school.

In the past dozen years or so, Winn says, infancy and childhood have been telescoped into a precious three or four years of intense parental attention and a few more years of loosening apron strings. Then, at about age ten, all resemblance to the children of the past hundred years vanishes. Asexual children have been replaced by the sophisticated, profane, sexually knowledgeable manikins we see all around us today.

These kids know it all, or at least that's the impression they convey. Television, anything-goes movies, "young adult" novels, divorce, and above all a lack of parental supervision have permitted these kids easy early access into the once- secret adult world. Innocence has been replaced by cynicism about everything from politics to schoolwork. Once unthinkable activities--children's drinking, taking drugs, defying and terrorizing their parents, setting their own schedules, and experimenting with sex--have become epidemic.

This frightening transformation, Winn writes, is the result of a convergence of social and intellectual trends. Briefly stated, Winn believes that children are victims of the feminist movement, which for all its positive effects has seriously disrupted our traditional child-rearing patterns. Most significantly, as women have left home and entered the work world, a childcare gap has been created, and men have not stepped in to help. Also to blame is our catastrophic divorce rate. Divorce, she argues convincingly, is inevitably and profoundly upsetting for children. The current notion that it is better for children to experience the dissolution of their parents' marriage than to live with marital tension, she says, is highly questionable. Further complicating the already unstable family scene is the pervasive notion that the first three years are absolutely the most important in a child's life. This belief's dangerous corollary is that children who have received a lot of attention before entering nursery school can substantially survive neglect and virtual abandonment.

A garbled popularization of Freud, Winn says, often makes parents mistakenly equate any repression of their children's sexual behavior with neurosis, homosexuality, and mental instability later in life. In fact, she writes, Freud was a believer in sexual sublimation, not sexual indulgence. "For while the fearful anti-masturbationists of the nineteenth century predicted a population of hairy- palmed lunatics if childhood sexuality were not suppressed, Freud feared an end to civilization itself and a return to a savage state of nature if this force were given free rein during the course of childhood."

Another important cause of the loss of childhood innocence that Winn cites is the general belief that children are adults' psychological and emotional equals and, as such, deserve autonomy and independence. This parental abdication to child-power has had far-reaching effects. Not only is it an acknowledgment of parents' lack of self-confidence, but this absurd egalitarianism makes any exercise of parental authority appear intolerably unfair.

Winn, whose earlier book, The Plug-In Drug, was a chilling report on television's effects on children, lays much of the blame for our unchildlike children at the media's doorstep. The marketing of adult-children in movies and on television, and the distortion of what kids are really up to have led to an acceptance of what she calls "The Myth of the Teenage Werewolf." This is the false idea that all kids are sexually active, drinking, drugging, out-of-control creatures who will run away from home if their parents exert any restraining influence on their activities. Add to this dismal brew the indisputable fact that television's moronic and crass world has replaced children's play, family activities, and even conversation in millions of homes around the country, and you begin to see why Winn says that children--and their parents-- need some help.

And she offers help. Children Without Childhood doesn't whine; it's a dramatic, readable, useful book for parents who are beginning to realize that their jaded children will never become mature human beings unless they intervene, fast. Her message is clear: children must have a long and sheltered childhood--complete with play and protection. They also need parental insistence on manners, thoughtfulness, and adherence to the family's values, which must be articulated if they are to be respected. "Only through the lengthy experience of being a child," Winn writes, "of being dependent, of being totally protected and nurtured by loving parents, does the child gain the ability to be a successful, protective, nuturing parent himself."

Thorough and judicious as her argument is, Winn is not without her quirks. She neglects some important factors in childhood's decline. The diminished importance of organized religion as a backstop to family values is not discussed; nor does she have much to say about another possible root of our current dilemma-- adult feelings of defeatism and powerlessness in the face of our economic and political situation. On a more trivial level, her repeated use of the phrase "little widdler" to refer to the penis is a bizarre touch.

Her acceptance of occasional spanking is more disturbing, however. While an old-fashioned swat may, as she says, "clear the air" more rapidly than would a lengthy, guilt-inspiring negotiation, the long-term lesson would seem to be that it's okay to hit smaller creatures who displease us. Her view of traditional childhood seems overly nostalgic, too. After all, the most lost children in the world-- the drugged hippies of the late '60s-- were products of supposedly idyllic, cosseted childhoods in the '50s.

These cavils aside, Winn's message is clear and important: we must protect our children from the wide-open, amoral, over-stimulating world around them. If we turn off the television, the children will perforce return to the kind of play that they must experience to understand their world. If we learn to compensate for mothers' absence from the home (and Winn is very sympathetic toward the goals of women's movement), then we will become more understanding and solicitous of our children's welfare. If we accept that marriage takes work, we may be less inclined to divorce. If we accept the strength of our role as parents, we will stop being afraid of our offspring and will once again be able to reassert our parental authority. Then, with a lot of effort and some real sacrifice, we will succeed in giving our children the security and confidence they need to learn about their place in society and, eventually, to contribute to our civilization.