IT'S SATURDAY, Labor Day weekend. Sensible people are enjoying the last four-day weekend of the summer. But not me. I'm at Bloomingdale's, White Flint Plaza, young teen section and I'm sick about it.

With only a few shopping days left until school starts, you can smell the anxiety in the air. It has something to do with the 10-minute wait for a dressing room, but it also has to do with the free-floating anxiety that attaches to being a parent these days. All around, the equivalent of the gross national product of Chad is being frantically spent on back-to-school wardrobes. Historian and former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin has said that this decade will be remembered as one in which people formed themselves into communities not by what they believe but by what they own. Indeed, it now seems clear that Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" means getting to Neiman-Marcus when the doors open at 10 a.m.

Among other things, being a baby boomer parent means having postponed child-birth until your income level reached the upper brackets and you had bought yourself everything you wanted. With enough disposable income, birth can turn into another buying opportunity, a whole new human being to be consumed for.

Child psychologist Neil Bernstein, who has been treating Washington families for 20 years, says he expected no different from baby-boomer parents who equate success with things. "You've put together the perfect life, you want a perfect child. The easiest way to create that illusion is with things." He also sees a new anxiety among today's parents, the first generation to sense that their children might not do as well as they have. "The pressure is much greater now than during the last baby boom. The world was expanding in the '50s. Now the baby boomers see shrinking possibilities -- that it is going to be a lot harder for their kids -- and they are panicking. It's not just keeping up with the Joneses, it's getting way ahead of the Jones' kids."

To that end, Child, a magazine devoted to our newest consumers, says that a couple can spend $60,000 in the first two years of a baby's life. At the junior high school level, there are parents who admit -- out loud in school meetings and on national television -- to spending as much as $4,000 a year for kids' clothes. Spend a few hours shopping and you will see how.

At the Esprit section in Bloomingdale's, I see $464 and change flashing on the cash register and it is not a mistake. A 12-year-old has just purchased a wardrobe consisting of one $112 sweater and one $95 sweater, a pair of $70 overalls, two pair cotton pants, $46 each, two shirts, $36 each, and miscellaneous belts and socks. All will be outgrown in a year. Manager Jodi Starron says the amount is not unusual.

Over at the watch boutique, novel and expensive ways of keeping time are proliferating faster than new strains of Adidas. There are watch faces as big as a chocolate chip cookie and ones as tiny as a nickel; there are clip-on watches and ones that attach to a sock. All make a fashion statement; none tell the time. It's totally wrong to wear a single watch. One boy has just bought four different watches. He can be late for class in all four time zones.

How have we come to the point where spending $100 on a kid's sweater is thinkable? The younger generation's need to conform, and peer pressure have always been factors -- no one wants his child to be the one sitting alone over a steam-table hamburger because he dresses like a dork. But psychologists and school officials see a new factor at play: parents themselves. In the old days parents acted as a countervailing force against children's acquisitiveness. A parent could place a limit at one pair of penny loafers, muttering all the while about the importance of sturdy arches, and could count on other parents to mutter the same thing. Now what you can count on is kids showing up with an entire wardrobe of pricey sneakers. Restraint has disappeared along with the refrain that kept the universe intact "I don't care what Caroline is buying, I'm your mother and I say one pair of shoes is enough."

"Kids have always wanted to conform," says Leonard Upson, principal of Roosevelt High School in Northwest Washington, who sees students arriving in $100 sweatshirts and $65 shoes. "I remember having to have PF Flyers. But even though there was a lot of disposable income around in the '50s, parents just weren't willing to go along with so much, with styles that change every week."

Manipulation, says Bernstein, is one product of materialism. "We didn't have everything handed to us and we didn't even know to ask for these really elite things. Now a 13-year-old will say to a parent, 'Don't lay a guilt trip on me about buying a $100 sweater when you own a Mercedes.' This is the inevitable 'precociously sophisticated stage,' according to Susan Blumenthal, M.D., a child psychiatrist and chief of the National Institute of Mental Health's Behavioral Modification Programs, when a child who has been fulfilling the status needs of his parents comes to feel entitled to whatever he wants. Even if parents see this for what it is, they are often not equipped to deal with it. "These parents are used to spoiling their kids. Both frequently work and they don't want what little time they have to be filled with conflict -- so they give in."

Prof. Carol Seefeld of the University of Maryland's Institute for Child Study sees a kind of parent inflation, too many acquisitive success-sodden adults chasing after too few legs up for their children, the legs up all being superficial. "It's the Reagan 'You are what you spend' mentality." Seefeld sees less peer pressure than parental need to turn their kids into pint-size status symbols. "I have parents who tell me they buy $50 Nikes for their kids because they really want them. I know developmentally that a 4-year-old doesn't know labels unless {the concept} is drummed into him. That's why you end up with pre-adolescents demanding $100 outfits."

Indeed, adolescent pressure can't be blamed for the huge wads of money being spent on status items for newborns. Consider strollers, all hundred imported varieties of them. Among the most popular is an Aprica canopied convertible with rollbar, soft leather interior and steel-belted radials, roomy enough to command two lanes in the Georgetown Safeway. It costs close to $400. With dealer incentives, and 1.9% APR financing, you can pay it off before the bill for the first pair of Topsiders rolls in.

Across the aisle in Bloomingdale's infant section, parents are scooping up the accouterments of the "Bloomie's Baby." Now, a Bloomie's baby is going to run you a lot more than, say, a Sears Baby or a J.C. Penney Baby, what with the Naf-Naf coverall ($76), the Absorba undershirt ($12), the Dior booties ($10), the Petit Bateau pajamas ($22) and the Je Suis sleepsack ($50) for that Cartesian youngster born pondering dualism. The Bloomie's Baby does not appear to be a made-in-the-USA tot. Bloomingdale's may be the only store that needs its own foreign policy.

But that's child's play compared to the hours and money invested in the wardrobe once the baby enters the fast lane in nursery school. Your little tyke can't possibly network with the right people at pre-K if he's wearing a poly-cotton blend from Monkey Ward. Bernstein points out that the whole school exercise -- the fear that if your child doesn't get into the right pre-kindergarten he will never get into Harvard and end up in a gutter somewhere -- plays a big part in parent anxiety. "In Washington, if you have a choice, most choose not to go to public junior high or high school because of all the perceived problems. So I have parents coming in, pouring over curriculums for 2-year-olds, wondering if it will be what it will take to get him into Harvard." The proprietor of an elegant children's boutique reports that parents come in frantic over the best outfit for school interviews, spending $200 or $300 on the English boarding-school look, or the currently fashionable cross between French lycee and the Beastie Boys.

You can outfit your child for less, of course, but that's not the point. "My most expensive items move first," says Analise Plain, owner of Just So, a children's boutique in Foxhall Square. Of the 20 Italian wool coats retailing for more than $300 this fall, only four are left. Her stock of $150 to $200 snowsuits for infants are just about depleted. After a trunk showing, she sold out of the 50 Malley party dresses priced from $150 to $300 -- in one day.

The volume of business at Just So has gone up every year of its 14 in business, a tendency that is apparent nationwide in the up-market segment of children's wear, according to industry analysts. Associated Merchandise Corporation, which charts trends in the industry, says the children's departments have become such big profit centers in recent years that they have moved out of the budget backwaters into prime retail space on the upper levels. Industry analyst Joseph Scheines at Kurt Salmon Associates, an apparel consulting firm, says this follows the changeover from a budget-driven children's market to one which is fashion-driven. He cites the "fleece" category, always a sleeper until designer sweatsuits came along -- when it became the most profitable, shooting up 40 percent.

The whole category has become so lucrative that a raft of designers has begun cutting kids' clothes -- Ralph Lauren, Gloria Vanderbilt, Calvin Klein, Georges Marciano (Guess), Izod, Dior, Yves St. Laurent, Missoni, Valentino and Giorgio Armani -- and they are using the same success-and-sex hype in the child market that they use for adults. Brooke Shields in her Calvin Klein seems mild compared to today's bored and boring kids advertising Jordache jeans on prime-time television. Upscale publications like Vanity Fair and The New York Times' Sunday magazine feature page after page of pouty, world-weary children leering at the camera in enough layers to clothe a family of four in a temperate Third World clime. Sophistication, not innocence, sells. In the George Marciano Guess ads, everyone seems to be asking for it.

It was inevitable that a publication would arrive to sop up the advertising dollars of the new industry. The year-old Child magazine, fat and glossy, is Vogue for the young. Minimalist editorial materials -- what to wear to that all-important first sleepover, (sleepwear Made in Taiwan will not do) and a fashion spread on "clothes for junior achievers" -- surround designer ads. Neither the Old Child, who would spit up mashed carrots on that blazer no matter how much it cost, or the Old Parent, who thought a little permanent-press never hurt anybody, is much in evidence in these pages.

That's because the Old Parent didn't spend enough. The New Parent of this mini-baby boom of about 4 million births annually, up from a low of 3.1 million in 1973, is much older and richer and worth being the target. About 1.5 million of the 4 million births are first births, the largest number in history, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Even so, there may be a limit. Perhaps with the $200 Giorgio Armani sweater for a 6-year-old, we have reached an intermediate top, a pause in the Shopping Wars where nostalgia for a bygone era will kick in. Do we really want a generation of children who will never hearken to the words "Attention K mart shoppers," or experience vinegar in large bottles without raspberries? As adults, we can at least remember a day when liver had a life of its own outside pate'.

Several schools in Baltimore, along with Burrville Elementary in the District, are trying to turn the clock back to a saner time. At Burrville, in far Northeast, principal Walter Henry said that the preoccupation with designer clothes was "fostering a false sense of values at an early age," and he put a stop to it by requiring uniforms costing about $50 each. Roosevelt's principal Upson says he can't do that in high school but applauds the move because he sees the worst effect of the whole craziness on the kids whose parents can't afford it. "When the parents who have money let their kids buy whatever they want, it makes the parents of the kids who can't afford it feel inadequate. I know kids whose parents have taken second jobs just to be able to afford to put their kids into the latest style."

Patrick Welsh, an English teacher at one of the most economically diverse schools in the area and author of "Tales Out of School," says that the obsession with clothes takes away from the classroom. "Everybody is spending huge amounts on clothes and the kids who can't afford it -- instead of doing homework and studying -- are taking jobs after school just to buy designer jeans. It's crazy."

I wish I could go against the culture, nip out to K mart and say the hell with it. I believe Harvard child-development expert Dr. Barry Brazleton when he warns parents against giving children too much because soon, no matter how often you tell them they are privileged, and no matter how much footage of starving Ethiopian children they see on the nightly news, they will come to feel entitled. And therein lies a generation of spoiled brats with fallen arches. But it's hard enough to send a child off to a new school without making her be the Gandhi of junior high. I may rant about how things have gone too far, but can I ask her to do it? Having a child makes you do things you never thought possible; your life pre-child is like the world beyond the Hudson in the Saul Steinberg New York poster. It hardly exists anymore.

So until the day when we adopt a mutual non-aggression pact -- I won't let my kid do it if you won't let your kid do it -- I head back to White Flint. We buy some things, not as much as most kids, but more than enough. We hover in the lowest three figures you can hover in, but that's without new shoes.

Or socks.

Margaret Carlson is acting managing editor of The New Republic.