"The kids are driving me crazy."

"If my daughter doesn't stop doing that, I'm going to go crazy."

"It drives me crazy when my children act like that."

Most parents have echoed those or similar sentiments at one time or another. But how they deal with that craziness, says early childhood expert Eda LeShan, is critical in determining their ability to rear a well-balanced, healthy family and at the same time maintain their own stability.

"There really are only a handful of important attitudes and skills essential to successful parenting," asserts New Yorker LeShan, who for more than 40 years has been an educator and childhood counselor, advising parents on how to deal with their children from infancy through adolescence.

At the same time, those fundamental abilities "comprise some of the most profound and courageous challenges we ever can give ourselves." The primary goal for parents, she says, should be to continually struggle to be better human beings: more civilized, more rational, more compassionate, more brave. "Right now, courage is a terribly important thing -- the courage to go on being decent, to have values."

LeShan, a contributing editor to Woman's Day magazine since 1980 and author of more than 15 books on children (her latest, When Your Child Drives You Crazy, St. Martin's Press, $14.95, was published last month), is an outspoken advocate of her particular brand of parenting and child care, and an equally determined critic of "rat psychologists and computer psychologists" and their technologically oriented work.

LeShan's approach to child-rearing stresses the importance of parents' ability to "read" their children's behavior and maintain effective lines of communication. She differentiates between families where the children irritate parents, even to the point of exhaustion, and those where the children indeed challenge their parents' sanity.

Some of the craziness is perfectly normal and goes on every day of parents' lives with children: "They talk too loud, they make too much noise, they're sloppy . . . they're children and they act very childish, which is very difficult to live with, but it's normal and every family has to live with that."

It is other kinds of craziness we have to concentrate on, says LeShan, and we should search our own childhood for the true reasons for our present anger or upset:

*The craziness that comes from trying to rear children differently from the way the parent was raised. LeShan notes that her mother was heavily influenced by psychologist John B. Watson, a proponent of conditioning babies to eat, sleep and eliminate at regular intervals:

"With that kind of pressure of conditioning, there are a lot of people my age 63 who have terrible trouble with their digestive tracts. They never really had a normal business where you go to the bathroom when you feel like it. It was difficult, having been toilet-trained at 6 months, to wait until my daughter was 2 1/2 or 3. I was going out of my mind but I knew I had to do it."

Another such incident occurred when LeShan's husband told their 2 1/2-year-old daughter Wendy (now 35) to go put on her pajamas:

"I will not, you old dope," she responded. Larry LeShan, a psychologist who "knew he was dealing with a normal 2-year-old phenomenon," grew red in the face and said he felt ill. His reason: "I knew that if I had ever spoken that way to my parents, I would have been struck dead by lightning."

*The craziness that comes when our children refuse to do what we were made to do as children. Parents who, as children, always came to the dining room table with hair combed, hands and faces clean; who sat politely when a funny-looking aunt came for a visit and then gave her a kiss when she left; who ate all those vegetables they hated, even though they felt like gagging -- feel angry and upset when their children today refuse to buy the same behavior.

That may drive us crazy, suggests LeShan, "because we are green with envy."

*The craziness that comes when we think our children aren't behaving rationally. We think we don't know why they're behaving the way they are but, LeShan maintains, it is likely that we do understand:

"When they behave in ways that really upset us, they are forcing us to remember, at least on an unconscious level, how we once felt, and the memories are just too painful to endure."

Reading our children becomes easier as we develop our ability to connect their behavior with our own in similar circumstances when we were children. LeShan cites an example in which a mother saw her 7-year-old strike his 3-year-old sister. Next, recounted the mother, "He stood in the middle of the kitchen with a weird smile on his face. My first reaction was, he's really a rotten kid to hit and then smile.

"Then I saw the shock and panic in his eyes. He'd hit impulsively without thinking, and I heard myself saying to him, 'You don't know what to do, do you?'

"His eyes filled with tears and I said, 'What you can do is tell Sarah you're sorry and you'll try to be more thoughtful in the future.' He looked so relieved."

The mother, remembering how confused, ashamed and embarrassed she had been when she had done something similar as a child, was able to help her son and daughter as well as defuse her own anger.

It can help children to be reminded that you've been where they are. Trying to deal by themselves with emotions they think are unacceptable to the adults around them is "one of the great burdens of childhood." "Children don't have enough perspective to understand that they're being childish, that they're not being bad," LeShan says. "Few people will tell them that. You can't possibly live through childhood without blaming yourself for all kinds of things that you think are wrong with you."

Misreading a child's behavior can accentuate this feeling on the child's part. For example:

*You take your child to the beach for vacation and he doesn't want to go into the water. Without thinking you say, "You had such a good time when you went in the water last year, why are you scared now?"

You didn't stop to think that he's frightened now because he realizes just how deep and wide the water is and he knows he could drown. Says LeShan: "The child's interpretation of your question is, 'I'm not measuring up.' "

*You look at your child's report card and say, "Well, I hope you'll do better next time." The child's interpretation: "I'm stupid and I can't live up to expectations." "Trying to measure up to parental dreams and impossible expectations," in fact, can cause children to become emotionally crippled adults.

The people who have made the greatest contribution to the understanding of children? "Nursery school teachers. They study the animal in its own environment, with other children, in a place where they're playing."

Play, says LeShan, is how one discovers what children are made of. And nursery school teachers are the explorers. "They know more about child development and human personality than any of those professors in the ivory-tower places all over the country."

LeShan is as critical of IQ tests as she is of the technologists that rely on them: "The IQ test is complete garbage. It measures nothing but what a child or an adult has been exposed to in terms of facts. It's another example of trying to apply inappropriate scientific methodology to the study of human beings."

Children should be judged by comparing how they are doing now with how they were doing six months ago, with some consideration given to how they should be doing in the next six months. Instead, they're "judged on this stupid curve because that's part of the scientific methodology."

That isn't what parents want for their children. "What we want," emphasizes LeShan, "is for our children to be fulfilled, creative, feeling alive . . . to be full, functioning people. We want them to be glad to wake up in the morning and do their thing."