Mia Martheze, 10, has her nails painted at Mo Beautiful You spa in Morningside. Picture: Matthews Baloyi

Johannesburg - To gauge how people react to the idea of kids going for spa treatments, I put the question out on Facebook. It didn’t take long to receive the results. Most of my friends were anti, some vehemently so, and only one was warm to the idea that treating your child to a massage or a manicure from time to time was okay.

“Ridiculous. Children should be children,” was the response that best sums up the general reaction.

Of course, my Facebook friends don’t include the moms who are converts to the idea, and there are many of them, given the proliferation of “pamper parties” and special spa treatments for children.

The Sparkling Waters Hotel & Spa in Magaliesburg, for example, offers girls and boys between four and 12 years a “Babes and Dudes” programme, which is a selection of 20-minute massages and a mini-facial with a chocolate mask.

The Spa Afrique in Northcliff offers children between six and 13 a chocolate wrap and peppermint massage, or a strawberry milkshake wrap with a vanilla massage. A selection of spa treatments can be tailored for birthday pamper parties for children aged from six to 16.

I confess I’ve spoiled my own 11-year-old with the odd spa massage, so she could have a treat while I had mine, but I draw the line at facials, manicures and pedicures, not least because with my child being a child, her painted nails would be a mess within minutes – and a waste of money.

One Joburg spa that has found an increasing appetite for kids treatments is Mo Beautiful You in Morningside, Sandton, so I went along to chat to owner Lebo Mhlanga.

Mhlanga offers kids’ pedicures, manicures and massages, but not facials. Girls can also get their legs waxed.

“It makes a nice opportunity for mother and daughter – or son – to bond and relax. They get pampered at the same time, and children learn that it’s okay to take time out for themselves,” Mhlanga says. “They also live stressful lives these days.”

Mhlanga also introduced her kiddie menu because, like other mothers battling to have a quick facial or pedicure between mothering duties, it made sense to her to dovetail the two. “I say bring the kids along and let them spend that time with you. Gym clubs have kids’ corners, so why not spas? My customers are mostly mothers with their daughters. Also, they are learning about grooming, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Nail polish doesn’t harm the nails, Mhlanga adds, and light-pressured massages can help relax a child and “make them feel special”.

One of Mhlanga’s customers is Jacqui Martheze, who regularly comes with her 10-year-old daughter Mia. “We come once a month, and look forward to it. We get our nails done in matching colours. I think it’s important to teach your kids to look after themselves, that grooming is important,” Martheze says.

It all seems innocuous, and the massages are even pitched as being beneficial to the child’s well-being.

Illyria House spa in Tshwane, for instance, markets its kiddie massages with the message: “With all the stress that a modern child has to deal with it is very important to provide your child with a way to release steam. A massage (which costs R300) is the perfect way to release tension and also assists in the continued development of your child. A regular massage will help a child to concentrate better, sleep better and promote an all-round sense of health and well-being.”

Psychologist Wendy Hay, who works at the Bella Vida Centre for mental health and wellness in Bryanston, is not convinced, saying the potential psychological fallout of being pampered like an adult far outweighs any temporary physical benefits of a massage or thrill of being fawned over by spa staff.

“There is a subtle, actually not-so-subtle, manipulation and exploitation of the potential in the younger market. It’s about using the child as an economic pawn without looking at the consequences,” says Hay.

“Children are children and one of the most important objectives of childhood is preparation for adulthood and survival. Their ability to do this is largely learned from parents and their attitude. The pampering of the spa presents the danger of inculcating an attitude of entitlement to unearned luxury, reward without the input. And you have to ask yourself, ‘What am I teaching my child?’ That the external (spas, medication) is the only way to deal with discomfort?”

Above all, children needed to play and to practise all the skills that would later help them in the boardroom, or in uncertainty and struggle. “Children need to be finding ways to deal with stress in a ‘child-centred’ way. Activity, imagination, running, playing… these are all ways for a child to work off stress. The pampered life teaches no survival skills, and the spa is the ultimate experience of passivity. Children are already more passive than ever due to the role of television and computers. Learning to climb a tree carries far more benefit,” Hay says.

Baby massage is another matter.

Touch is healing, and light-pressured massage can be good for babies with colic. Massage is also useful in cases of trauma where a child’s body has been hurt or violated. “In these situations, the skill and integrity of the ‘healer’ would be vital,” warns Hay.

The psychological implications of kiddie pampering aside, it’s worth considering that spas are essentially for adults, as a big part of the attraction is enjoying child-free “me” time.

As my wise Facebook friend Jane Knight, mother of two daughters, puts it: “Spa stuff is treat time for us big people. I’d hate to go to a spa where there are kids dashing around. Anyway, kids are so perfect the way they are, they don’t need enhancing, do they?”

* Mo Beautiful You: Call 011 783 1056

* Sparkling Waters Health Spa: Call 014 535 0000/6 or visit www.sparklingwaters.co.za.

* Illyria House hotel and spa – visit www.illyria.co.za or call 012 344 6035. - The Star