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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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Parents, says Lareau, are "determined to make sure that their children aren't excluded from any opportunity that might eventually contribute to their advancement."

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Travel, for example, is very important to the way Sabine Steck and Larry Tift want to raise their children – Simone, 12, and Ethan, 9. "When we are away from our day-to-day lives, we are more engaged as parents and less uptight as a couple," says Mr. Tift, a university librarian's assistant. The San Diego couple have taken their kids as far as Tokyo, but also to British Columbia, Mexico, and Hawaii.

"We think travel is hugely valuable for our kids," says Ms. Steck, a real estate agent. "I grew up that way and think what I learned through traveling has given me a much richer perspective in life. We want [our kids] to grow up interested in the world and not ethnocentric."

The cost for that? About $10,000 a year.

The Steck-Tifts' child-rearing ethic extends to dining out, too – a way they expose their children to different kinds of foods, such as Indian or Japanese. It costs them about $2,400 a year.

It takes more than sushi, though, to cultivate a well-rounded child, and Steck and Tift have also paid for activities like martial arts, piano and flute lessons, drama, swim team, and soccer. Costs vary from $110 a month for swim team to $300 annually for soccer to $400 a year for drama. And, says Steck: "We use both the public library and the university library where Larry works, and yet we still spend about $500 a year for each child on books and music.

"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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