SINCE the publication of his best-known book, The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon (1981), David Elkind has become something of a guru, some might say a lightning rod, in the fractious field of early childhood development.

In his small, book-littered room at Tufts University outside Boston, Elkind willingly takes an hour to talk about himself and some of the things on his mind.

Take his impossibly busy schedule -- surprising, perhaps, for someone who has written so much about the stressful consequences of overscheduling children. Elkind modestly acknowledges that he does a lot. He teaches (currently he's professor of child study and senior resident scholar at Tufts' Lincoln Filene Center for Citizenship and Public Affairs). He travels about the country lecturing, consulting and participating in various forums (in December he'll be a featured speaker at a conference on early childhood programs in the public schools, to be held in Alexandria, Va.). He's a contributing editor to Parents magazine. He's president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. He maintains a small private practice as a family therapist in Boston. He's the father of three grown sons, two of whom are now students at Tufts, and he's a solicitous great-uncle.

In his spare time he writes books. One of the things he's keen to talk about is his latest, entitled Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk (Knopf, $16.95; paperback, $7.95). Both this keenness and the nervously rapid-fire style of his conversation contribute to the impression that, for all his academic eminence, David Elkind has the temperament of a crusader. He talks of "getting the message out," of education as a means of "developing people as whole beings," of "a lack of soul, a coldness and shallowness" in contemporary American society.

Elkind is no mere pop psychologist. After gaining his doctorate at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1955, he went on to pursue a distinguished and multi-faceted career in developmental psychology and education. Earlier books include Children and Adolescents (1970), Child Development and Education (1976) and All Grown Up and No Place to Go (1984). Yet it is apparent that he is motivated less by scholarship, cogitating in the void, than by a very practical if idealistic desire to help foster in this country an educational system which will produce "healthy, confident individuals."

"Early childhood," he remarks, "is really a critical period for developing basic attitudes towards learning, towards school and towards self, and you can't take it lightly. If we do a good job with the early years, the rest will follow; if we louse it up, we can mess up everything that comes later."

In Miseducation Elkind focuses on a phenomenon which he sees as relatively new (at least on a wide scale): the exploitation of young children by their own anxious, gullible and competitive parents; by those who would instruct preschoolers in swimming, music, ballet and so on, usually for profit; and by educators misguidedly attempting to raise standards and test-scores in American schools by the ever earlier imposition of academics.

"Years ago, in the early '70s, I started a school in Rochester {N.Y.} for what I called 'curriculum-disabled' children, children who had been functioning below the norm for their age and showing signs of emotional disturbance after having been confronted with completely inappropriate teaching methods. We'd take them out of the system for a year, tutor them, give them some experience of success, and then send them back into the public schools. At the time it seemed as if relatively smaller numbers of children were being affected.

"Then in the early '80s there was a sudden boom in the business of developing programs for very young children: Superbabies, Better Babies, complete with flash-cards and all the rest of it. That's what got me really incensed, formal teaching being imposed at younger and younger ages. There is no evidence whatsoever that these programs do any good and considerable evidence that they put children at risk for psychological damage."

Elkind emphasizes repeatedly that his ideas are supported by contemporary authorities in the fields of pediatrics, child psychology and psychiatry and that they are anything but faddish.

"I've been talking about these things for a long time. I'm a student of {French child psychologist Jean} Piaget and one of the things which concerned him when he came to this country and talked about the stages of development in children was that people were always asking him, 'How can we do it faster, earlier?' He called it the American question. Now we have even more evidence than Piaget had that our mental abilities change with age, that the stages of development in the brain can't be hurried."

Doesn't this sound rather like a re-run of the views propounded six years ago in The Hurried Child? (Let children be children, not miniature adults. What's the rush, particularly if rushing may cause harm?) Elkind acknowledges an overlap, but is adamant that the phenomenon which he labels "miseducation" (typical of the mid-'80s) has very different effects on young children from those caused by "hurrying" (typical of the '70s and early '80s).

"The hurried parent," he explains, "often really doesn't have the energy to invest in child-rearing, whereas the miseducators in some ways over-invest. The difference can be seen in the consequences. It's something like the difference between a neurosis, with symptoms like obsessions, compulsions and phobias, which is the likely result of miseducation, and a stress reaction -- nail-biting, hair-pulling, ulcers -- which is caused by hurrying.

"Stress is caused by external factors. Often the stressed child is just going from one place to another (home to child-care and school and back) and responding to too many demands for adaptation. But with miseducation, parents are actively involved. What often happens in the effort to get children to do or learn or perform something is manipulation or abuse of the personal relationship -- classical Freudian stuff in some ways."

This is why Elkind opposes formal instruction for tots, be it music lessons or martial arts classes. "Three hours a day at a good nursery school or kindergarten is plenty for a child. I really believe that all these classes are a product of social pressure, that parents do it to show off social status.

"I hear a lot of, 'Oh, but I have my 4-year-old in ballet class and she just loves it.' I have to reply 'Yes, but how did she learn about ballet. She didn't discover ballet. Somebody took her there.' It's hard to know how much is really coming from the child and how much she's just doing it to please her parents."

What about such long-established and widely-praised institutions as the Suzuki music schools, which teach violin to children as young as 2 1/2, claiming that their natural and joyous creative talent will wither if neglected until elementary school age? "Suzuki has no evidence that his methods give the children anything in the long run -- self-esteem, creative satisfaction -- that they couldn't get playing with clay, or making collages or Easter baskets for their parents. Why does it have to be the violin, for goodness sake? Lots of distinguished musicians and ordinary music-lovers have grown up without taking Suzuki." FINE, no Suzuki, no Gymboree, no Tiny Chefs, no Waterbabies, no Jhoon Rhee. "Besides," as Elkind says, "such programs are expensive. The bottom line is always money. They sound very altruistic, but they're certainly not giving it away." But what is the well-intentioned mid-'80s parent supposed to think about nursery-school and kindergarten? What is a "good" program anyway? Does Elkind favor simply letting kids do as they please, in school and out, in the interests of personal freedom and untrammeled self-expression?

Hardly. "Early childhood education is education, it's not just letting children play, although that's very healthy in itself. A teacher (or parent) has to learn how to organize the environment, select the right materials, ask the right questions, in order to stimulate the child to build upon the skills he already has -- matching samples, classifying, ordering are typical skills for this age-group, not to mention language skills."

Kindergarten and first grade come under Elkind's purview also, since 5- and 6-year-olds are included in the broad definition of the educational term "early childhood." According to Elkind these grades should provide more of the same opportunities for child-initiated learning in skillfully and subtly organized settings. He disapproves of desks in rows, of phonics drills, workbooks, exercise dittoes, and set reading and math texts which emphasize the acquisition of abstract, isolated skills. Take reading, the latter-day kindergarten parent's major worry. Elkind has a lot to say about it, much of which may sound radical indeed to parents whose 5-year-olds are already busy memorizing letter sounds and drilling initial consonants.

"The real issue," he says, "is not learning to read, but reading. Children are going to learn to read. If you let them go at their own pace, if everybody around them is excited and everybody's doing it, of course they'll want to do it.

"I used to start kids reading with comic books. You have to build on children's interests. The important thing is that reading is part of language and language is part of culture. You don't take it in isolation and make it into a 'skill.' Children need a rich language experience before they can really begin to read."

What does this mean in practice for the benighted kindergarten teacher? "Teachers should read a lot of poetry and good stories to children. The children can begin to recognize sight words like 'stop' and 'go.' Rather than going directly to books, they can get a sense from these function words that words have meaning. Then they can move from that into dictating and later writing their own stories. And learning concepts! If they don't have the concepts, any reading they do is not going to make any sense.

"Children have to reach a certain level of intellectual development before they can read English effectively, and that's why I advocate that we don't start formal instruction before 6."

David Elkind pauses, verging on anger, then produces a sentence as final as a signature: "Let's wait until they can handle these things."

Still, it is not without a twinkle of sympathy in his eye that he reports at the end of the conversation that the book he is currently working on is about parent stress, "raising children in a changing society, the sheer stress of child-rearing itself."

I think I'll buy it. ::

Elizabeth Ward is a Washington writer and editor.