Growing market for kids' spas in US raises concerns

Growing market for kids' spas in US raises concerns
Abigail Berger, seven, getting her hair washed at the Allure Day Spa. The International Spa Association said 25 per cent of about 20,000 spas in the US now cater specifically to those under 13 years old.

AFTER getting a facial and a haircut, Abigail Berger, in a pink bathrobe, potters over to the manicure station to complete her day of pampering.

It is the third spa visit for Abigail, who is all of seven years old.

"It's fun! I want to come every weekend," she said as her mother stops her from biting into her 10th piece of chocolate at Allure Day Spa in New York City.

These days, a massage-manicure-facial combo constitutes a normal day at the spa not just for adults, but also for children from as young as three years old.

These ultra-young clients even have their own dedicated spas offering everything from facials to massages to extra special spa birthday party packages.

While the trend is just picking up in Singapore, it is definitely in full swing in the United States.

The International Spa Association (ISPA) said 25 per cent of about 20,000 spas in the US now cater specifically to those under 13 years old, compared with just 15 per cent four years ago.

"More spas are providing young people with the tools to more effectively manage stress and live a more healthy lifestyle," said ISPA president Lynne McNees.

Said Ms Akilah Hawkins, owner of Sugar Suite Kids Spa and Salon in Maryland: "This is a great way for children to become more attentive to their appearance and hygiene as far as grooming and it builds self-esteem."

In fact, some of these "for children only" establishments pander to their sensibilities by playing Disney songs and bubblegum pop in the background and using products with recognisable scents like ice grape bubblegum, rasberry frosting or chocolate.

"We have cotton candy everything - lotion, pedicure powder, bubbles, body spray - everything," said Ms Venetta Carraway, owner of Ritzy Glitzy Girls Club in New York.

Sweet and Sassy, which has outlets all over the US, even offers a limousine pick-up service for teens to party it up on the way to their spa appointments.

The customers may be small, but not so much the charges for the pampering they enjoy.

At Sugar Suite, a two-hour package - with manicures, pedicures and facials - starts from US$450 (S$605) for a party of six.

Over at Allure Day Spa, it costs about US$90 a child for the most basic pampered princess package.

Apart from a manicure, pedicure and facial mask, she can have all the sparkling cider and chocolates she wants.

Rising demand means Sugar Suite has seen its client base grow from fewer than 500 three years ago to more than 2,000 today.

At Allure Day Spa, children make up 15 per cent of its clientele.

"Parents began asking for services, so we started about two years ago," said Ms Lana Bargraser, owner of Allure Day Spa.

"Once the kids try it, they know what it is... they want to be pampered too."

But family and child experts who spoke to The Straits Times advise parents against taking their children to the spa.

"It would only add to the obsession society already has with appearance," said psychology professor Louis Lichtman from Alfred University in New York, who wrote the book A Practical Guide For Raising A Self-Directed And Caring Child.

"Parents should be encouraging their children to be independent and self-reliant, and I think having spa employees wait on them does the opposite."

Social psychologist Susan Newman, who has written several parenting books, notes that parents indulge their children for different reasons.

They want to give their children more than what they had growing up, or are trying to keep up with other parents.

At times, it is something their children have asked for, and they feel unable to say no.

But indulgences like a spa outing should be reserved for only special occasions, said the experts.

Nine-year-old Annick Hart-Vilain called her first spa day in New York City one of the "best days ever".

But when asked if she would like regular spa treatments, she said: "I won't expect it all the time... maybe to celebrate something once a year."

Agreeing, her mother, Dr Jacqueline Hart, 48, who works in a human rights organisation, said: "She spent time anticipating this, so it's definitely something special... It's lovely to spend time together."

Said Prof Lichtman: "Making the child wait for a special occasion before going... would be one way to reduce the chances that the child would get used to this type of luxurious treatment."

But Abigail's mother, Ms Tonianne Berger, 43, does not think these spa visits will spoil her daughter.

"I think it's a good thing to teach her that if she grows up and works hard, she can enjoy herself," said the compliance officer.

Abigail, who has a pedicure about once a month, is already planning for a special occasion.

"I'm going to have my birthday party here in October!" she said.

This article was first published on Jan 26, 2015.
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