At first blush, it seems that this non-fiction look at the many goods and services purchased by today's parents is a whole lot of what we already know. Yes, yes, there are $800 strollers out there, and there are lots of people hiring private coaches for everything from potty training to college essay writing. And yes, yes, my grandmother's generation or even my own grew up just fine without half the things not considered to be required for safe and healthy child rearing. Grandma tells me that all the time.

 But sometimes you have to gather everything that's going on into one big dungheap before you realize how crazy your normal world really is. Author Pamela Paul does an excellent job compiling an exhaustive list of everything today's parents pay for that no generation has before. Of reminding us that there were not always five different children's boutiques in the mall. That parents didn't used to bring their infants to "music and motion" classes nor sign language lessons. That yesterday's children did not have extensive collections of CDs and videos, nor did they have their own cable TV channels.

I almost missed out on all this perspective -- and the deliciously voyeuristic peek into the spending habits of rich and famous parents (exclusive play club/salon complex overseen by "Brooke and Gwyneth"!). I almost put the book down because I was turned off by the intro, in which Paul lays out the perspective from which she approached her research. Ms. Paul and the friends she quotes obviously inhabit a somewhat privileged, urban echelon, one where parents pay $30,000 a year for preschool and seriously listen to so-called financial advisers who tell them to put away $2,000 a month per child for college. (With no appreciation whatsoever, such an investment would lead to a college fund of more than $400k by age 18. Even before the new tuition plans, Harvard didn't charge $100k a year!)

I roll my eyes when I hear that the "opt-out revolution" is sweeping American motherhood, as if some highly paid attorneys in Greenwich, Conn., are truly the pulse of the nation. So I felt that same eye-roll coming on when I read that Paul's friends worried they'd have to give up their flexible careers such as freelance writing because having a baby requires having good health insurance. Seems to me, she's looking at a group of parents who feel that making any kind of sacrifice to start a family is a new and unusual trend.

Fortunately, I kept reading, because despite the limited point of view exhibited in the introduction, this is a very well researched book. While it does focus largely on the upper to middle-upper segments of the economic scale, the book makes exposes the very radical consumerist turn that modern parenting has taken.

Better yet, Paul answers a very relevant question: What's wrong with a little spoiling if you can afford it?

Plenty, according to psychologists, educators and other experts she quotes, and according to many privileged but anguished parents.

On one side of the problematic coin are the psychic maladies that drive us to spend. The anxiety and insecurity that drive parents to invest in baby sign language classes and "educational" toys with the unrealistic (and irrelevent) promise of teaching 6-month-olds their ABCs.

On the other side are the harmful results of overspending. Here are a few unintended consequences Paul warns of:

  • It's not impossible to teach an infant to recognize letters and even words. But it may distract her from what she's really supposed to be learning at this age, like problem solving and their own identity.
  • Celebrating every minor event in a child's life on video, the Internet and in scrapbook can give kids the impression that every moment of their lives has to be spotlight worthy. Warns Madeline Levine, psychologist and author of "The Price of Privilege," "Children may grow up to view normal missteps as glaring and unacceptable." Celebrity child syndrome, anyone?
  • When parents perpetually defer to Supernanny or another outside expert to solve problems, the child's view of the parent is diminished. They need to know they can count on us, and they need to know we are the ultimate authority in their lives. Also, when parents delegate important child-rearing challenges, we miss out on the growth that comes with solving them ourselves.

This last point really rings true for me. When I read about parents who use a night nurse during the week and just went to pieces without her on weekends, I realized that I was lucky to have never had the financial option of hiring one. No one really wants to lose sleep in those first few months of an infant's life, but from living through those nights, I became a certified expert in my own child.

Paul stops short of indicting every last dime spent in the pursuit of better babyhood. She allows that some of the things we have and our mothers didn't are just awesome -- like doulas and online shopping.

In the end, "Parenting, Inc." is a reminder of what most of us learned the first time we visited a friend whose parents were divorced and noticed that they had way more toys than we did: You can't replace love and time spent together with things, and all you get from trying is broke.