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Spend, Spend, Spend: The New Model for Parenting

In spite of being racked with debt, Gen X parents are increasingly pouring their paychecks into luxury items for their children that seem frivolous to the point of ridiculousness.
 
 
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Move over, Bugaboo. There's a new, high-priced stroller in town. Meet the new Maclaren. Souped up with leather seats and handle grips, its signature motif is a hand-stitched emblem made of nine-karat gold. It's price -- a mere $4,200. Interested parties ought to move fast: Maclaren has only manufactured 20 of these luxury perambulators, the better to promote their exclusivity and uniqueness.

While singularly ostentatious, a golden stroller is only a tiny piece of the $45 billion American children's luxury goods market, where parents routinely spend hundreds of dollars on kiddy goods that seem frivolous to the point of ridiculousness. A Coach leather diaper bag, $398. A sleekly designed baby bouncer, $200. A crib that looks more appropriate for a shoot in Architectural Digest than for use by an actual infant, $1,700.

What gives? After all, Wal-Mart and Target sell some perfectly acceptable cribs for around $100, and baby bouncers and diaper bags retailing in the low two figures are easy enough to find. Well, it's simple really. In a brand-obsessed society, parents are heading to the stores as a way of showing how much they love their children. But they forget that a society demonstrates the value of parents and their children not by how much equipment is available for them to purchase, but by how well they are taken care of when they need help. And by any standards, the United States is falling down on the job.

Marketers point out that Generation X, the age group that makes up the bulk of new moms and dads, have always spent their way into popularity. But as they simultaneously approach parenthood and middle age (the oldest Gen Xers turn 42 this year), instead of wearing Candies and Vidal Sassoon jeans to increase their social clout, they now purchase too-cool-for-school baby gear, hoping for the same result. "During the formative years of today's parents, family, religion and government programs were very weak. They had no support systems," demographer Ann Fishman points out. "And as a result, we have these young parents who want a strong family, love their kids, want to give them everything, but they don't know it doesn't mean stuff."

Instead of lobbying for a more family friendly environment, Gen X parents hit the stores, despite the fact that they carry 78 percent more debt than Baby Boomers did at the same age. But a cashmere sweater set for a newborn infant can't hide the fact that, in the United States, more than one in five children live in poverty. No $2,000 designer crib can make up for the fact we guarantee the elderly medical care, but not their children or grandchildren.

Handmade wooden toys don't make up for the modern workplaces, where the decision to procreate is considered on par with a decision to take up a time-consuming hobby, as numerous mothers, forced to "opt-out," can attest. And the latest prestige item -- a Mandarin-speaking nanny -- can't compensate for underfunded schools, with even well-heeled suburban districts routinely facing bruising battles over property tax rates and assessments used to pay for their youngest residents' education.

Of course, there has always been a side of parenting that's bordered on the ostentatious. French children's clothing stores have long lined the sidewalks of New York's Madison Avenue. Nineteenth century Parisians gossiped when Napoleon III obtained a rattle made of aluminum -- then a scarce and expensive resource -- for his son and heir. But the mass consumption of children's luxury goods is something new -- and something undesirable.

If parents are looking to buy themselves and their kids a status upgrade, jeopardizing their own -- and their children's -- financial futures with luxury shopping isn't the way to go.

After all, long after that baby bling is relegated to the attic, there will be college costs to think about. Then again, mom and dad can always tell junior to take a page from their own book. They can tell the rug rats to charge it.

Helaine Olen is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times , the Los Angeles Times , the Wall Street Journal , Salon.com and numerous other publications. Her book, co-written with Stephanie Losee, Office Mate: The Employee Handbook for Finding -- and Managing -- Romance on the Job , will be published this fall.