Q.I am always reading and hearing about parents who feel their children are gifted and indeed, they frequently seem to be correct.

When I was growing up I never liked school. I couldn't take a test, and I seemed to study the wrong things. My brother and sisters had the same problems with school. My sister and I finished college but school was always a struggle for all of us. We now have relatively mediocre jobs.

My husband's family is very intelligent. He and his sisters breezed through school with no problems. They all hold post-graduate degrees from top colleges and have excelled in good jobs.

I have hoped that my two preschoolers would inherit their father's intelligence. They are great kids who are certainly not below average -- they just seem "average." They have a certain degree of creativity and curiosity but at this time I don't perceive it to be in the gifted category.

My heart aches to think these children will have the same problems in school that my siblings and I had.

To complicate matters, many of our friends seem to have very bright children. My husband's sisters' children are also very bright. One of my brothers-in-law can't seem to keep from comparing my children and his.

What can a parent do to help an average child succeed? How much should they be pushed to learn? I don't believe in early education because it's my understanding that by second grade children are more or less on the same level, regardless of years of schooling. Is this true? The parents of bright children that I know don't seem to need to do anything to stimulate their children. They just learn from their environment.

I am sure there are no simple answers but please give me some guidance.

A.Every child has certain abilities that, when encouraged, will bloom, though not always when they're either expected or needed.

Even if your child seems average to others, this isn't a disability. The average do decent work in school, as long as they have fairly good teachers and enough self-esteem. It's true that you and your brother and sisters had bad times, but that probably reflected the traditional ways your teachers taught you. They seldom work for nontraditional learners.

Fortunately, many school systems now recognize that different children learn in different ways and expect their teachers to adjust to suit them. If your children show signs of trouble in school, you can have them tested, so they can be taught to their strengths, which will give them the heart to work on their weaknesses. This may be done in school or by special tutoring but it should prevent a replay of your own unhappiness.

Children learn best when parents talk to them like people, sharing their news, asking for their opinions and listening to their answers. When we treat children with as much respect as we want to be treated, they develop a strong self-esteem -- the single best indicator of future happiness and success. This encourages them to be as ingenious and curious as nature intended. The brightest children get nowhere if they are too timid to seek knowledge or too inhibited to express themselves. Conversely, so-called average children can go far if they believe in themselves and if they know their parents believe in them.

It's a poor idea, however, to compare your children with their cousins, especially for your brother-in-law to do it. Fate has such a wicked way of mocking the complacent.

You also might reconsider your opinion on early education. It is valuable, but perhaps not for the reasons some people think.

A good nursery school introduces children to new ideas and often to better, more thoughtfully chosen toys than most parents can afford. The big gym equipment also encourages them to use their arms and legs better -- which helps them to coordinate their hands with their eyes -- and above all, nursery school helps children learn how to play with each other.

For most preschool children, however, an early dose of reading, writing and arithmetic is a wash-out and some experts even think it results in resistance to learning. Preschool children can learn symbols well but most aren't ready to work with them before first grade and even if they are -- what's the rush? There is so much else for them to learn and to savor.

There are, of course, those rare children who teach themselves to read with almost no help -- a sign that they're academically gifted -- but most children are quite content to wait. Please let them. They need your patience.

When they do get to school, they need you to realize that they may not make straight A's (or straight B's). That isn't anything to worry about, either.

Remember: It's not how well you do in school, it's how well you do in life. And it's not how much money you make but how much happiness you have.