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.
But it's not as if the Gianulises are rich – he is a pest-control technician and she is a food writer with a column on FamiliesOnline.com. But when it comes to their children, they open their wallets. Mrs. Gianulis estimates she spends $800 a month on food for her three, because eating well and healthily – the subject of a book she wrote – is important to her. She admits that when she and her husband started a family, they figured their biggest expense would be college.
"Then my kids wanted to play every sport under the sun," says Mrs. Gianulis. That has translated to thousands of dollars a year on fees, equipment, and gas. And it's just a small slice of the family's kid-related expenditures, which include things like mortgage payments, school supplies, summer camps, pediatrician bills – and Christmas.
Most families in the United States spend about $450 per child for Christmas, according to market research firm NPD. Mrs. Gianulis is budgeting about $400 for each of hers – for one big gift and several smaller ones.
"Alex," she says, smiling and wiping her hands on a dish towel, "will probably get that big barrel bat he wants."
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Parents may not be as selfless – or indulgent – as the flapping of open pocketbooks might suggest, says sociologist Lareau. American parents spend plenty on instant gratification for the kids, but they are spending increasing amounts to shape their children into a particular kind of adult, she says.
The phenomenon has a name: concerted cultivation. This category of spending constitutes an increasing chunk of the cost of childhood.