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Video: Pampered princesses

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msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/9/2007 7:35:09 AM ET 2007-07-09T11:35:09

When the Cappo family vacationed at a San Diego resort two years ago, Pam Cappo treated her daughter to what she’d always viewed as a grown-up indulgence: a spa experience.

“I got a massage and I loved it! It’s sooooo relaxing,” says Ashley Cappo, who is now 11.

Since then, Ashley has been hooked. And so have her friends in her hometown of Westlake Village, Calif. They’ve had numerous birthday parties at spas and can now converse about the merits of various massages, facials and professional hair and nail treatments.

“I was in my 30s before I had my first massage,” admits Pam Cappo. “But it’s different today.”

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It sure is. In the past few years, children such as Ashley have followed the example of their spa-embracing parents. According to the International Spa Association, more than half of the nearly 14,000 spas in the United States offer packages for families, teens or kids. A growing trend is for mothers to ask for products and services designed for themselves as well as their children.

“Mothers have gotten used to being in the spas and especially in very affluent areas they let their children have these kinds of things,” says Nancy Robinson, manager of Eclips Kids, the children-only annex of a salon and day spa in McLean, Va. Eclips Kids has been so popular, in fact, that last year another, bigger location opened in nearby Ashburn, Va.

Eclips and other spas treating children generally offer abbreviated versions of facials, hair and nail treatments and massages (with clothes and parental supervision).

Cappo says she takes her daughter to the spa because she likes it herself and because she thinks Ashley deserves it. “My daughter is a good girl and she makes good choices. I want to reward her and let her know that I appreciate that she’s a good kid.”

But some experts and parents question whether spa treatments are appropriate or necessary for kids.

Diane E. Levin, a professor of education and a researcher on children and commercial culture at Wheelock College in Boston, says that getting kids used to spa treatments is akin to training them to be little Paris Hiltons.

“It worries me because it just tells them that happiness comes from how you look and from buying instead of learning how to do things,” Levin says. “It’s this externalized sense of self and how one fits in the world. If you go to a spa you’re happy for the day, but you haven’t done anything internally to lead to real happiness, success or value.”

Levin says parents should be more interested in helping children to become compassionate people who are skilled at age-appropriate activities such as swimming, art, baby-sitting or even fort-building.

‘Kids are already beautiful’
Renee Mancino, a real estate broker and mother of two in Hawthorn Woods, Ill., agrees. “My daughter is 15 now and we’ve been dealing with this issue since she was 10 or even younger,” says Mancino. “All these girls at her school have been getting eyebrow waxing, lip waxing, manicures, hair color … I just don’t go for it. My job is to feed, clothe, educate and love her. It’s not my job to buy her massages and highlights.”

Mancino says spa and salon treatments are black holes for cash. What’s more, they transform children into looks-obsessed slaves to maintenance.

“It’s ridiculous,” she says. “(Kids) are already beautiful. They don’t need anything. Besides, if you give them all this now, what do they have to look forward to?”

A study by the International Spa Association hints at why not all parents are in synch with Levin or Mancino.

The study found that many adults no longer view spa visits as a luxury but, rather, as a health-care staple. The most common reasons adults say they visit a spa include not only sore joints and muscles, but also to feel better about themselves and for mental and emotional health.

Tamara Smith and her daughters have been visiting the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa in San Antonio for several years.  Four years ago Hill Country opened a separate spa for youth called The SPAhhhT. Twelve-year-old Kailey Smith is a big fan.

“It’s really colorful in there and the people are so nice and polite. The treatments are really good,” says Kailey. She’s had manicures, pedicures, massages and facials. Next trip she’s planning a massage and a pedicure. “I like those best. They’re really relaxing.”

Kailey’s mom says the spa is about family fun and good health. Both of her daughters play sports, and she’s an avid golfer. Smith recently played two 18-hole rounds of golf back to back, for example.

“My muscles were sore and it made me feel good to get a massage. It’s the same for my daughters. They don’t do this all the time but when they do it’s not all about being Little Miss Prissy Pants. Massage is great for the body, and the skin and nail care leads to basic good hygiene.”

Health benefits of massage
Maureen A. Moon, a massage and bodywork therapist in Boulder, Colo., and a spokeswoman for the American Massage Therapy Association, agrees that spa services should not be discounted as all hair weaves and fluff. Research has shown that massage, for example, decreases stress hormones.

“With the amount of athletics, music and computer kids do now, massage makes sense,” Moon says. “Of course, you have to get them away from computer and get them outside, but human touch is also so good for them.”

Moon says she takes the opportunity to teach kids about their bodies, and she notes that children are naturally fascinated with the massage process. “They ask about every stroke and they go back and show their parents.” It’s a different world from the one she grew up in but, according to Moon, it’s a better world. “This is really healthy touch that families didn’t have at one point.”

Many spas insist that their aim is to encourage health and fun, not vanity. Eclips Kids, for example, has begun preteen workshops that cover hair and skin care, clothing choices, proper nutrition and exercise, as well as arts and crafts workshops such as jewelry-making and crocheting.

“We want this to be a place where kids can come and have a positive experience all around,” Robinson says. “All of the celebrities these days are so thin and everyone is obsessed with looks. Mothers are concerned about it with their girls and we want to help with that in some way.”

A healthy focus, or a vain one?
Texas mom Tamara Smith says a spa can indeed fit into healthy parenting as long as it’s used in the right spirit. “I see some moms and some girls where it’s all about how you look and what others think of the way you look,” she says. “In our house we don’t stress looks much. I say if getting a massage or your nails done makes you feel good, do it. But it’s not about appearances.”

Dr. Jeannie Huang, a University of California, San Diego, researcher who has studied body image and health programs for children, agrees. “If the reason you’re going to a spa is about appearance, body shape, weight … that’s where you run into problems. If you focus on health, (a spa experience) can be fine.”

After her parents spent nearly $5,000 on a birthday party this year at the posh Four Seasons Hotel and Spa in Westlake Village, Ashley Cappo says she still likes the spa but she’s a bit over it.

“Next birthday I’m thinking an overnight trip to Disneyland might be fun,” she says. “Or, maybe we could go to SeaWorld and swim with the dolphins!”

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of "Fearless Pregnancy: Wisdom and Reassurance from a Doctor, a Midwife and a Mom," published by Fair Winds Press.

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