MISEDUCATION Preschoolers at Risk By David Elkind Knopf. 221 pp. $16.95; paperback, $7.95

Exercise classes for 3-month-old babies, reading courses that start at 15 months, math lessons at 2, nursery school tests at 3 and cram courses to prepare at 2 1/2. As David Elkind writes in the first chapter of his book, "Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk," "What is happening in the United States today is truly astonishing." For a variety of psychological, social and economic reasons, more and more American parents are now pressuring their preschoolers to enter an unrelenting contest for intellectual and academic achievement.

Programs that advertise "early or accelerated learning," "enrichment," "readiness skills" or any other number of so-called advantages are sprouting up all over the country and attracting increasing numbers of parents. Thus, as Elkind writes, children are being pushed to "learn" almost as soon as they are able to smile and say goo-goo.

In the process, he warns, we are miseducating our children, putting them "at risk for short-term stress and long-term personality damage for no useful purpose. There is no evidence that such early instruction has lasting benefits and considerable evidence that it can do lasting harm."

As a professor of child study at Tufts University and the author of "The Hurried Child," a book that examined America's penchant for pushing older children to "grow up too fast, too soon," Elkind is a very credible witness. He argues that academic preschools, accelerated kindergartens, programs that teach parents "how to have a brighter child" and myriad other formal and informal educational schemes push children far ahead of their level of development, pay too little attention to individual learning styles, focus upon isolated skill development and deprive children of more enjoyable learning experiences.

His examination also considers which kinds of parents tend to fall into the early-learning trap, what social forces combine to create this new trend, how schools foster miseducation and how parents can assess educational programs.

Not surprisingly, Elkind is at his best when he sticks to his field -- child psychology and education. His chapter on "The Competent Child: Miseducation in the Schools" is a fascinating discussion of how a number of programs, including Head Start, and such books as Benjamin Bloom's "Stability and Change in Human Characteristics" (a study of IQ and achievement scores) or Philippe Aries' "Centuries of Childhood" have contributed to the "image of the competent child" that provides part of the philosophical rationale of miseducation.

Elkind's chapters cataloguing the psychological consequences of miseducation should be required reading for any parent tempted to enroll his or her young child in formal academic programs or to engage in such training at home. Basing his arguments on the work of Erik Erikson and Jean Piaget, Elkind contends that miseducation encourages mistrust, shame and doubt, rather than trust and autonomy; fosters guilt and alienation rather than initiative and belonging; and instills in children a sense of inferiority and helplessness rather than industry and competence.

Although Elkind does mention many of the causes of miseducation, he does not put enough emphasis on the complex interaction that takes place when guilt-ridden parents -- particularly working mothers -- come into contact with increasingly aggressive "professional helpers" -- individual entrepreneurs and private firms that market "educational toys"; preschool tutors; book and magazine writers; and clothing manufacturers -- all of whom peddle a cornucopia of "superbaby" accouterments. Preying on parental guilt, these advisers insist that if children do not get an "early head start," their future will be jeopardized.

Despite some shortcomings, "Miseducation" is an extremely important and timely book. For when parents become the enemies of childhood, their children aren't the only ones who suffer. To waste these "magic years" on a futile attempt to gain an edge over the 3-year-old competition deprives parents of one of the most enjoyable experiences of their lives. One only hopes that parents will turn down the volume on the miseducational channel so they can absorb the lessons Elkind offers.

The reviewer is author of "Off Balance: The Real World of Ballet.