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Babies on the fast track

The picture on the cover of Newsweek was guaranteed to send shivers down the spine of any veteran parent. A tow-haired tot, immaculately turned out in a monogrammed raspberry turtleneck and green corduroy trousers, bows away on his cello with all the grave concentration of Yo Yo Ma. The caption identifies the precocious little musician as ''Zachary L. Harsch, two years old.''

The story inside spells out in awful detail the process of ''Bringing up Superbaby'' - a whole new generation of tiny overachievers, if we are to believe Newsweek's trend-spotters.

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Before mastering a stringed instrument at two, the timetable for Superbaby proceeds something like this:

1. Reading cards must be flashed before the infant's baby blue eyes practically at birth.

2. Swimming lessons begin at three months.

3. Simple math is taught at seven months.

4. Formal reading lessons shift into high gear at 11 months - and why restrict oneself to English?

If all goes well, at four Superbaby discipline will produce a paragon like Chloe Coventry, who constructs Japanese sentences, then translates them into French and English - and, for an encore, identifies characters from ''The Merchant of Venice.''

But if your Superbaby is lagging at four, forget it. Those dreams of Ivy League colleges and the best graduate schools and Success with a capital S are already obsolete. The slogan reads: ''Kindergarten is too late.''

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Still, how can Superbaby fail when Supermom has her ''professional mothering certificate'' from Better Baby Institute and Superdad is thinking, ''I want to fill these little sponges. . . . I want to produce a computer in a world of typewriters''?

Before we all get carried away into sobs-and-giggles over the elitists in Calvin Klein diaper covers, we should ask ourselves: Who exactly are the parents here - these dedicated and humorless fanatics of anti-permissiveness?

A little math, worthy of the seven-month-old Superbaby, tells us that a lot of new Superparents come from the rebellious ranks of the late-'60s adolescents: the terrorists who made a career of waging guerrilla war against the Establishment while shouting, ''We are the children our parents warned us against.'' Can these puritanical taskmasters be the same hippies-yippies who preached, ''Do your own thing''? Having terrorized their parents as ultra-radicals, are they now about to terrorize their children as ultra-conservatives?

This plot-reversal seems too pat. In both instances we prefer to believe we are dealing with cultural cliches; trends are mostly defined by their exceptions. Yet this frantic hustle to push up tot-potential - even if only a journalistic half-truth - is a light-age away from that other half-truth of ''The Greening of America.'' Whatever became of mellowed-out and laid-back Consciousness III? Lost forever, evidently, on the way to the new ''rat-race nursery.''

More than theories of infant-cognition or games of generation-ideology are at stake here. We are sorting out the claims of efficiency. We are really talking about more human and less human ways to live, as children and adults.

Parents whose babies are now a matter of memories and old snapshots must wonder: Where's the poetry? Where's the silliness and sentiment of baby-talking and crawling-on-all-fours? Where's the fun?

Even if we should grant that there's nothing to life but special skills - and therefore Superbaby's super-deeds are a proper and all-fulfilling goal - do we have the formula?

Parents who know their business know they do not know their business. Growing people is less predictable than growing corn. And shouldn't we be glad? ''Something you consider bad may bring out your child's talents; something you consider good may stifle them.'' In addition to all that sensory-stimulating equipment, these humbling words by Chateaubriand may belong on Superbaby's crib.

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