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Beyond the scary Christmas list: the full parenting price tag

The parenting price tag has soared to about $220,000 per child. If you think the kids' Christmas list is hefty, there's no end in sight to the add-ons Americans can think of in the cultivation of kids.

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Much of the spending on behalf of children, say parents and economists, goes toward easing a rising panic – concerns that if they don't fork over for educationally enriching activities, sports, tutors, musical instruments, and orthodontia, their kids won't get into the right college and, in turn, won't have a good life.

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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.

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.

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