Don't let childhood die; Children Without Childhood, by Marie Winn. New York: Pantheon Books. 224 pp. $ 13.95.

When we hear 10-year-olds using language on the playground that once was the province of street toughs, what's our reaction? Are we shocked or dismayed? Is it difficult to feel protective toward children who sound so world-weary?

Our response to today's savvy and sophisticated preteens is at the heart of this disturbing book. As it documents the loss of innocence among so many American children, it is even more alarming in its portrayal of society's changing attitudes toward them.

In a previous book, ''The Plug-In Drug: Television, Children, and Families,'' Marie Winn examined the pervasive role of television in contemporary child-rearing. In ''Children Without Childhood,'' she explores an even wider range of cultural influences, from Mad Magazine to ''The Rocky Horror Picture Show.''

To hear that sixth-graders now read ''young adult'' books about prostitution and gang rape, watch pornographic movies on cable TV, and experiment with drugs and sex may not be news to many readers. But the warnings Winn sounds about the implications of these unchildlike pastimes should be making front-page headlines.

As the strictly defined roles that used to separate adults from children disappear in a quicksand of changing social patterns and parental uncertainties, the author cautions that many children are growing up too fast. One result of the soaring divorce rate, for example, is that children in single-parent families often find themselves taking on the functions of the absent parent or assuming the role of confidant to the remaining parent.

After three years of extensive interviews with a representative sampling of children, parents, and teachers, the author is convinced that we're leaving an ''Age of Protection'' of children and entering a new ''Age of Preparation.'' Instead of shielding children from what they perceive as the harsh realities of life, parents who are sometimes anxiety-ridden often try to steel themselves and their youngsters for the worst to come. They force their children to watch frightening documentaries about drugs and deliberately expose them to adult frailties in the hope that ''early awareness will help them deal with the inevitable problems of adulthood that lie ahead.''

The result? A generation of children who've had adulthood thrust upon them - a generation of children who've grown up without a childhood.

Why should this concern us? Because, says Winn, in addition to its obvious joys, childhood has an ultimately crucial purpose: ''Only through the lengthy experience of being a child, of being dependent, of being totally protected and nurtured by loving parents, does the child gain the ability to be a successful, protective, nurturing parent himself.''

One success of this book, then, is the authoritative and caring case the author makes for preserving a distinct, unpressured childhood. Another success is the historical framework she provides for her arguments.

According to Winn, the ''Age of Preparation'' is a throwback to the Middle Ages, when children's survival depended on their ability to grow up fast. Today's troubled era descended in a single decade with the unprecedented social changes of the 1960s: The emphasis on self-fulfillment, the sexual revolution, the public erosion of trust in elected government, and the diminished role of religion combined to produce a generation of parents who felt they could no longer depend on the values they had been reared on, who felt little confidence and much ambivalence about how they ought to raise their own children.

To add to the confusion, many so-called ''child experts'' began to shift theoretical gears. The permissiveness of the '50s was replaced by the ''psycho-self-help'' of the '70s, a style that emphasized democracy, equality, and shared decisionmaking over parental authority. Parents of the '70s, Winn writes, tried to ''get their children to understand, to agree, to forgive, instead of simply telling the kids what to do.''

Children were encouraged to think things through for themselves, and as more of their mothers entered the paid work force, they had more unsupervised time on their hands for precocious experimentation.

But, the author points out, ''. . . the observation that children have suffered a reduction of care as a result of women's increased employment is not meant to imply that women are to blame for choosing work over child care. . . . the blame, if any is to be assigned, must go to men for not stepping into the breach and taking on a greater share of child-care burdens than they assumed in previous times.''

In this passage, as in others, Winn stops short of proposing solutions. Some readers may protest that the book leaves them feeling somewhat helpless, but her purpose here is to illumine the questions - not answer them.

This isn't an easy book to read, both because of the difficult subject matter and because of the volume of information. Readers may get mired in their own wranglings while trying to wade through the author's often complex arguments. The reasoning also travels in problematic circles at times, with causes and effects seemingly intertwined.

Despite these minor flaws, however, this is must reading for present and would-be parents and for all adults who cherish their own childhood memories - and want to be sure that legacy is passed along to future generations.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.