Parents are treating children like "designer handbags" that enhance their own social status, rather than nurturing them into happy human beings, a leading campaigner on children's issues has said.
Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder and director of UK charity Kids Company, warned that wealthy or middle-class parents "going berserk" to ensure that their offspring passed tests for top schools ran the risk of damaging their children's psyches in the same way as abusive parents.
Politicians, meanwhile, were pressuring schools to turn young people into "economically viable commodities" - a move that hindered learning, she said.
In an interview with TES after a speech to UK private school leaders' group the Society of Heads, Ms Batmanghelidjh said: "Private schools are being driven by pressure from parents because a lot of parents are competing with each other, almost as if children are accessories that are going to elevate their credibility rating.
"If you've gone to a particular private school, sports club or have a particular tutor, or are invited to a particular party, all this notches up the parents' power status on the social structure. I have watched parents go absolutely berserk and frantic to try to get their kids through these private school tests.
"At age 3, the child has to be able to write their name and name countries and all that kind of stuff, and what people don't realise is that is just as damaging as children whose psyche is invaded by maltreatment.
"It's all about perverting the development of a child, rather than valuing childhood as a period of growth and merit in itself, which is what we need to do."
Ms Batmanghelidjh - who attended Sherborne Girls, a private school in Dorset, after coming to the UK from Iran at the age of 11 - said that schools needed to put a "philosophy of care" at the centre of what they did.
She pointed out that some poorer parents were also guilty of regarding their children as status symbols - for example, dressing them in designer clothing to make a point about their own position in the pecking order. Childhood was being invaded on "multiple levels" and was now regarded as a "waiting room for adulthood", she said.
"Children are being conceptualised as empty vessels that you have to stuff with knowledge that must be economically viable," Ms Batmanghelidjh added. "Lack of safety and nurture is the primary driver in educational failure, not just good or bad teaching."
Leading private school leaders said that although they recognised the problem of "status-seeking parents", schools worked hard to strike a balance between parental ambition and children's well-being.
Bernard Trafford, headmaster of the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, and a former chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, a group of leading private schools, said that competition for places and "very aspirational families" could pose problems.
"At junior level, you do get tears from the children if they haven't got the marks they were expecting, if they haven't met parental expectations," Dr Trafford said. "But I think with maturity, as young people reach their teens, they learn to tell their parents to back off.
"A lot of what we do in the schools is to be realistic with parents. With entry to Oxbridge, for example, I tell them the bookies don't give good odds. You have to be both brilliant and lucky."
Alice Phillips, president of the Girls' Schools Association, said there were a small number of "overenthusiastic" parents in both state and private schools.
"But in the vast majority of cases this stems from parents' genuine desire to do the best for their children," she added. "If their expectations are unhealthy, schools can step in to help children and their parents to balance study and activities, and to make sure they aren't overburdened by either and can enjoy their education."