As the late Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget described the four major stages of child development to an audience at Johns Hopkins University, a man stood up to ask how the process could be accelerated.

Partly disgusted, partly amused, Piaget said--through a translator--"Only in America would that question arise. I suppose it is possible to speed up development a slight bit, but why would you want to do that? The child will get there anyway."

It begins, says Boston child psychologist David Elkind, with beauty contests for 4-year-olds, reading workshops for toddlers, professionally-oriented sports camps for pre-teens and books on assessing an infant's vocational skills.

Forced acceleration can end, he says, in crime, teen-age pregnancy, drug abuse and suicide. "Some kids respond to the pressure to mature rapidly by having intercourse at age 10. Others turn to alcohol, join a cult or try to shoot the president."

"Childhood," claims Elkind, "is threatened with extinction. Our children are losing the chance to experience the special joys, sorrows, worries and rewards of that special time of life."

Several decades ago, notes the Tufts University child study department chairman, "Precocity was viewed with suspicion; thus the phrase 'early ripe, early rot.' Girls were not permitted to wear makeup or sheer stockings until they were in their teens, and, for boys, getting a pair of long pants was a true rite of passage.

"But now we dress children in miniature adult costumes, expose them to gratuitous sex and violence and expect them to cope with an increasingly bewildering social environment: divorce, single parenthood, homosexuality.

"Like adults, they're made to feel that they must be survivors . . . to cope without cracking--even if they're only 4 or 6 or 8 years old. They have become the unwilling, unintended victim of overwhelming stress."

These "hurried children," he says, make up "a large portion" of the troubled youngsters seen by clinicians. He estimates that about 2 out of 10 children are showing some signs of stress, such as stomach aches, headaches and "type A" (competitive, demanding) behavior.

"Many teen-agers feel betrayed," he says, "by a society that tells them to grow up fast, but also remain a child. They may act out this conflict by trying to prove their adult status."

For example, "Police arrested nearly 19,000 children aged 16 and under on felony charges in Chicago during 1980. Much of this crime is committed by middle-class children . . . who often experience a strong sense of having been exploited by adults."

Teens who "may look and behave like adults," he says, "usually don't feel like adults. Emotions have their own timing and cannot be hurried."

Elkind, 50, who has three children, says he's been "fighting this battle against hurrying our kids for a long, long time." He was interviewed 10 years ago by Barbara Walters on the "Today" show about his opposition to toddler reading programs.

"The thing about those early-reading programs that no one seems to point out is that there are no statistics to prove that they help."

Elkind's new book, "The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon" (Addison-Wesley, 210 pages, $5.95), is an alarm, he says, "to parents, the media and society . . . Our future is much more dependent upon child development than weapons development."

He acknowledges that with a competitive, economically troubled and divorce-ridden society, "The temptation to pile heavy domestic burdens on the child is strong for parents under stress. If a child can start dinner, then why not have him or her prepare the whole meal? We expect kids to adapt more to adult-life programs than we adapt to their child-life programs. And we may ask them to make stressful decisions, like which parent they want to spend Christmas with, for which they may lack the maturity."

Unhappy parents may unwittingly, he says, try to live vicariously through their children's accomplishments. "Women who chose to remain home, despite pressures to enter the workplace may try to justify their decision," he suggests, "by raising superkids. And I would venture that there is a strong tie between job dissatisfaction and a disproportionate concern with an offspring's success in sports."

The difference between helping and hurrying a child? "Often subtle," he admits. As a rule of thumb, "Ask yourself if you're abrogating adult responsibility to a child. Keeping their own room clean may be appropriate for their age; keeping the whole house clean may not."