Q: I must take exception to your column of Jan. 20, in which you discourage the parents from giving ice-skating lessons to their young child for an hour a day, five days a week.

If the ice-skater's parents listen to you, they will rear another average slob, a conformist with wasted talents.

This is the crime of our society: Children are not encouraged to work. In other civilizations--at least in the educated classes--they have frequently excelled academically or as performers, without being hopeless neurotics. Today most of the people I meet seem like under-achieving dolts.

Perhaps the ice-skater's parents should be careful about mentioning "championship" and other loaded words, and should make it clear that their daughter won't be a failure if she doesn't become an Olympic skater, but they certainly shouldn't curtail her training. It should be kept up at least for a trial period of a year or two, and if the child becomes discouraged it could be slackened, but not given up completely.

Many artists have thanked parents and teachers who tided them through times of disinterest by insisting that they continue to produce, at least a little. Learning doesn't have to be continuous fun, but by the time we are old enough to learn the pleasure of deferred gratification, we usually have wasted precious time.

Nothing was ever lost by encouraging the development of knowledge or talents. These are things that will be with a person throughout his life, unlike status clothes, video games and other things that parents lavish on their children as evidence of "love."

And from another reader:

Please tell me what sport, other than figure skating, requires that one must be able to move backwards and forwards, right side and left side, equally well? Did you know there are 69 different school figures that must be learned equally well on each foot, backward and forward?

How many golfers, tennis players, baseball players, basketball players, etc., could do equally well with both hands? And you suggest not starting this sport early?

I ask you: If a 3-year-old child starts reading, will you likewise tell the parents, "No, not until first grade."

I am aghast that you should encourage mediocrity. The emphasis does not have to be on winning or losing; the competition is with oneself. If someone wants to do it, don't discourage them. This only reinforces the parents who don't want to give the time.

A: And that's just the tip of the ice rink here at Black Rock: We've been asked not to quote the reprimand from the writer whose ice- skating daughter has been getting up every morning at 4:30 since she was 6, practicing 37 hours a week--12 on a single day. Future champions, says this mother, must put in this kind of time to be competitive.

Her daughter must like this routine to stick to it, but others may feel stage-managed, pressured and beset by expectations they can't meet.

While parents may be trying hard to be supportive, their child may feel pushed, perhaps in the wrong direction. A child who is gifted, mentally or physically, has many general interests at 6, but when they are defined too narrowly--even an hour a day, five days a week--they may reflect the interests of the parent more than the child.

A parent might look, instead, for the child's three to four native talents, and offer encouragement and enrichment in all those areas.

The middle years are the time for a child to spread about--to try a bit of this and a little of that--choosing friends and activities that suit her interests and learning the pleasure that competence brings. And then come 10, 11 and 12, the years when she (and of course, he) turn a pastime into a passion.

The interest may change from year to year, but not the need for goals and achievements. This is the way a child pursues excellence, because she has chosen her own destiny, not responded merely as an obedient child.

If a parent makes the decision to isolate one area of activity--which is what is happening when the child is age 5 1/2--the underlying goal is apt to be competition. There are, however, natural competitors, and that spirit also should be recognized and listened to. Just as we acknowledge various facets of our children, if we are sensitive to their uniqueness.

A delay may (or may not) keep a graceful, well-coordinated child out of the Olympics, but to many children, that may not be the end of the world.

What applies to sports applies to anything else.

The bright and verbal 3-year-old will learn to read on his own if his body and brain are synchronized and ready for it--but if this doesn't happen, let him be. Many experts believe that the child pushed to read and write too soon can develop serious learning problems, perhaps because he hasn't developed his big muscles well enough to organize the brain circuits needed for the fine motor skills. This early teaching also can give a child such a sense of failure, and such a fear of failure, that what might have been a mild learning problem becomes much worse.

Even if the child is taught to read early, with no bad side effects, the benefits are temporary. Non-readers catch up quickly when school starts.

A child shouldn't be held back any more than he should be pushed. Nor should parents shut him out of their professional world. Over and over we see the artist, teacher, chef, farmer, plasterer come from a household where the occupation reflects the talents of his parents. The child works hard in his parents' world because he is invited to join it, in the classic manner of the apprentice. Parents know instinctively that this is another way to bond; a child follows instinctively, because it is the way to satisfy his need to be productive.

It is when the invitation turns into a push, and the push to a shove, that the child suffers. It is fine to encourage excellence, but not at the expense of the child who might sense it--someday--as coercion.