Kay Hymowitz was on her first child when she began to ask herself: What's wrong with this picture?

She worried about telling her little boy what to do. Would that "inhibit his individuality?"

"I was giving him choices when he was 3 years old whose dimensions he couldn't understand," Hymowitz says. Why? When she made the everyday demands parents must make on children--how to act, what to say and what not to say--"Was I intruding on something personal, which I had no right to do?" She had two more children: a total of three over a period of 10 years.

"And I also noticed my friends--especially the men--were extremely uncomfortable asserting any authority over their kids. I think the last thing in the world they wanted to do was to be like their fathers--there was a real fear about that."

Certainly, the self-actualizing philosophy of the '60s had something to do with it.

But that was only one element, Hymowitz found in researching "Ready or Not" (Free Press, $25), subtitled "Why Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future--and Ours."

She is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values. Hymowitz provocatively argues that Americans are doing what no other adults have done: We've finished with the idea that adults figure out the world for children. Now we let them do it themselves--as if they were capable of it. What they end up with is shallow.

Adults not only used to protect children from sex and other adult matters, "but also from the dominance of peers and from the market, with all its pressures to achieve, its push for status, its false lures, its passing fads," she writes.

Even babies aren't what they used to be. Infants had been considered helpless. Now they're intellectuals. This "staggering concept" of the "competent infant" is timely, she writes, as it developed at the time parents started putting babies and toddlers in day care.

"Culture becomes a grab bag from which parents choose the activities they think most useful for their own individual children. Games like pat-a-cake and peekaboo are meaningful not because one's mother and grandmother played them or simply for the unrivaled joy of a laughing infant but because these activities offer 'interactive forms of stimulation.' "

We adults are busy with our work. It's nice and neat to regard children as self-sufficient. We see this in the media's depiction of kids as hip, detached, ironic--which can be appealing, Hymowitz says, yet is "very dishonest."

She writes: "[Our] understanding of what children need and what it is we adults owe them has shifted dramatically." In Hymowitz's analysis, competent infants grow to be competent teenagers, who, it is assumed, will make rational decisions about sex. In the past, she writes, "America gave love a central role in the individual biography," but this has been replaced by "sexuality theory"--"a radically individualistic and body-centered creed," which has "all but emptied sex of meaning.

Hymowitz said in an interview: "We need to understand that something very different and new happened over the last 30 years. Throughout history, there was always an understanding that the older generations' role was to introduce the world--to induct the young into an existing world and explain it to them, to deliver its meanings and its rituals. That is something we're not doing anymore."

What a relief, isn't it, that someone bothered to notice?