t's too bad that we can't do a really scientific study on child-raising. You know the sort of research I mean: we could raise our kids one way, and then start all over again and raise the same kids another way.

Or maybe we would select boys and girls to be randomly distributed among a dozen pristine social models. One would be permissive, another authoritarian. A third would press children to learn reading and computing at two, and a fourth would demand nothing. The others would try to calculate some median course.

Next, we would hire an independent testing service to evaluate the products: which new grown-up is most attractive, and which process most effective? Finally, we'd publish a consumer's report on children. Then we could start our kids over again, and this time do it right.

My quest for a double-blind crossover study on human development isn't entirely whimsical. I think about it now because Americans are in yet another of those periods when we reassess the way we're dealing with children and try to plot a better course.

There is an edge to our adult voices when we talk about childhood today: an edge of toughness. We are disappointed that the young performed to our mediocre standards. Our social agenda has again produced a set of marching orders for children. The early sounds of our get- tough-with-kids policy could be heard a few years ago when people began questioning a juvenile justice system that often protected punks instead of their victims. The reformist idea that we deal with children leniently wavered in the face of kiddie career criminals.

Now the command to stop coddling kids, to shape up the younger generation, has moved into the mainstream and the middle class. You can hear it in speeches about parents' rights, see it in crackdown articles and books. It forms the backbone of current concern about educational reform which is, as always, about child-raising reform.

The report of the President's National Commission on Excellence in Education was as full of traditional homilies as Ben Franklin. "History is not kind to idlers," it said. The commission lectured parents and students on the need to study hard, work hard. It warned high-schoolers against taking the easy courses and ways out.

The Twentieth Century Fund report's slant against bilingual education was formed on similar grounds. Classes in English might make life harder for some children now, but they would make life easier for them later.

That trade-off--the present for the future, hard work for rewards, childhood for adulthood--is behind the consensus that has emerged in favor of longer school hours, longer school years, more homework. We seem to agree that it's time for our children to buckle down.

This picture of childhood is different from the one we carried around in our wallets just a few years ago. For a long time many of us, parents and teachers, were reluctant to pressure our kids. We were more worried about damaged psyches than diminished futures. We were more worried about stress than sloth. We believed that childhood was a special time of its own, not just a preparatory school where short people crammed for adulthood.

Maybe it's hard times that have forced us to shift our emphasis again. When our children's futures looked more secure, youth could stretch out longer, safer, easier. Our children could afford to be less competitive. When the economy shut down, we began to bear down--on the young.

Maybe it's also a routine correction in our own uneasy course of child-raising. As a people we have always had trouble deciding how much of childhood should be pleasure and how much preparation. Even now, in the midst of a crackdown, one coterie of psychologists warns about the loss of childhood.

This injection of demands is appropriate right now. It's needed. But only if we measure it carefully and avoid an overdose. It's too easy to resurrect the harridans of schooldays past as the heroines of basics. Many support longer hours and days as a punitive experience, not a learning experience.

Toughness is a needed additive, a good preservative for our kids' futures, but it's not the only ingredient in an ideal elixir. Unless we can pull off that scientific study of child-raising, we won't know a perfect formula. We'll go on fiddling. Some of us call it child-raising.