"I passed through adolescence myself once . . . on my way to New York City." -- Anonymous

IF BOOTH TARKINGTON were to write his book "Seventeen" today, he would entitle it "Twelve." Even the paunchy former white-buck brigade recognized that Pat Boone's wisdom in "'Twixt Twelve and Twenty" would more accurately apply 'twixt 12 and 13 now. Some kids whose living conditions demand it, expect it or permit it skip adolescence altogether: the poor, for example, strain from childhood to adulthood of necessity, wearing craggy-faced, somber-eyed teenage maturity innocent of joy; others race to drive, drink, have sex, try drugs in what historical perspective will record as a frenzied rush toward . . . what?

Teachers, parents included, face this time warp daily with increasing awareness and a burdening sense of futility. How old are our children? What does being 14 mean when two years later the same child may abe virtually unrecognizable? This rapid ride through what should be a decade of life -- the teenage years -- seems to create a learning gap resulting in an amazing range of experiences devoid of related wisdom, a spectrum of sensations made useless with impatience for the usual, a claim to "rights" voided by an oblivion to responsibilities.

Even if the condition is overstated, it exists. If you do not see your own children here, take a closer look at those next door. The fads of our time -- a set of shifting, often commercial demands with ever briefer duration -- produce not maturity at an earlier age but only childhood extended into bigger bodies with undeveloped sensibilities. We know (or trust) that maturity does eventually occur, but why are our children so often uncaring, self-oriented, unable to acknowledge the validity of the past, much less learn from it? Are we at such a barren state that a reasonable family goal is to pocess a broader range of video games for our children to manipulate?

Can champions of fast food, incoherence and volume become other than monarchs of dullness: will demanders of quick freedoms avoid being slaves to peer sameness? Why does a ninth-grade award winner become a burned-out case at 17: so sophisticated, so sure, so sad; angry at anyone who challenges -- a withered husk of the potential person he had been, an aged child who demands to be left alone yet who is frightened that no one will notice the self-pitying lament of his men's-room graffiti? Any age has its fears, but must these inhabit hearts so young?

We see the surface sophistication and forget the child's heart that beats within. We willfully dress our teenage warriors in adult armor, and when they dent the armor (or total it), we give them another set and a credit card to purchase more adulthood. But do we salve the inner dent, the one that plastic cannot heal? We deny them the necessary protective cushion of true, slow-developing, loved adolescence. They matriculate at fine universities, but the crucial college of hard knocks opens its doors later and later each generation.

The paradoxes of parenthood -- freedoms and responsibilities -- are meted out irrationally, bewildering even the steadiest of us into believing that we must "give" our children "advantages" and "happiness" even whild forbidding them time to grow. The poignant role is not that we fail to recognize this but that when we do understand it, it may already be too late.