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Listen up, Johnny and Jane

Beginning in the 1980s, as the do-your-own-thing young people of the '60s raised children, little ones became the center of the universe in some American families. They were precious clay, and parents were their adoring sculptors.

But the child-centered fixation has not always worked out so well.

Millions of people put their children into preschool child care -- and not just because both parents had jobs to go to. They also believed that preschool interactions would teach their little ones social skills that would give them a leg up in school and in life.

But the longest-running study of American kids in child care, funded by the National Institutes of Health, has found that while children do develop helpful vocabulary skills in preschool day-care centers, a lot of them develop serious behavior problems in the process. Sixth-grade teachers used words like "disobedient," "argues a lot," and "gets into many fights" to describe their students who had earlier spent a year or more in preschool.

And the child-centered concept of self-esteem is getting a harder look as well. So important had children's self-confidence become that many kids never heard a cross word. Letter grades were eliminated in some schools, lest a low one traumatize a child for life. Awards were handed out, not for achievement, but just for showing up and participating.

Now college academicians are dealing with a wave of cocky young people who literally collapse in tears, in some cases, when told -- often for the first time -- that their work isn't any good.

So the pendulum in lower grades is starting to swing back toward the basics: Behave in preschool. Learn to read, write, spell, and compute in school. Expect criticism now and then. Both you and society will be just fine.