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Beyond the scary Christmas list: the full parenting price tag

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"I think there is this contemporary mind-set that kicks in when you become a parent," says Brett Graff, a former US government economist and editor of Miami-based HomeEconomist.com. "You're told, for instance, if you don't buy this particular thing, your child won't get into college."

So American parents buy bigger houses; devise enriching experiences; engineer quality, actively engaged time for their kids; and purchase designer gadgets – all to ensure their children will be the kind of adults they want to hang out with and who, while they are growing up, their peers want to hang with, too.

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Certainly, the poor and working classes don't have the option of panic spending, observes Annette Lareau, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who wrote the book "Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life." With scarcer resources, they spend on food, shelter, and clothing – not on organized sports and enrichment activities.

This anxiety-fueled spending may be unique to the broad middle and upper-middle classes, but inasmuch as it has become iconic behavior portrayed in the media – and because broad swaths of American working and lower classes aspire to middle-class models – it has become something of a good-parenting standard.

Whereas middle-class children are often treated as a project to be developed, writes Ms. Lareau, children in less affluent circumstances are given boundaries for behavior and then allowed to grow. "These families aren't involved in the more competitive spending," she says.

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