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Beyond the scary Christmas list: the full parenting price tag

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"Everything costs more than you think it will with kids," adds Steck, who is feeling it keenly now, as the real estate market in which she works is depressed.

Ms. Graff, the HomeEconomist.com editor who has two young daughters, observes that marketing to perceived parental vulnerabilities can fuel concerted cultivation: "As parents we care about our children more than anything else. And when there's a vulnerability, there's someone who wants to make money off of it."

Parents who have the money to spend hardly feel duped by marketing; they most often feel they are deliberately trying to stimulate their children's development and foster cognitive and social skills, says Lareau.

Alison and Joe Cattelona, for example, believe the arts – music and theater – are an essential part of their children's development, probably because it's a big part of who the Cattelonas are as adults.

Ms. Cattelona runs her own computer-training business, Mobile Mac & PC Training; teaches a class at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan; and is an artist in the midst of painting a mural of two dragons locked in battle on the ceiling of her boys' bedroom. Mr. Cattelona is a physical therapist with the New York City schools but for many years worked as an actor.

They and their three children – ages 17, 14, and 11 – live in a modest house in a wooded, upper-middle-class neighborhood in northern New Jersey. Their middle child, Jordan, is musically gifted. Since he was very young, his parents have poured money into lessons and instruments to help develop his talent. Their other two children also receive music lessons.

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