DUBAI // Cosima Cummings looks slightly bewildered as one of the spa staff members massages her tiny feet with lavender scent lotion, before polishing and painting her nails.
The air faintly smells of coconut and Hannah Montana music is playing in the background. "Mummy, my toes are dry but you mustn't touch my fingers!" she tells her mother as she springs up from the small couch on which she has been quietly sitting. Cosima is three years old. She just finished a half-hour spa session. She missed out on the honey, oatmeal and yogurt facials that are on offer for kids from two to 12 years old, though.
Maya Abbar, the owner and founder of Tickles & Giggles, a children's spa and party shop that has been open for three months in Dubai's Jumeirah Beach Residence area, said that usually, "the girls check in, they get cucumbers for their eyes and they get served sparkling apple juice, and these girls, once they sit down they look like they've been doing it for years. The two-year-olds just put their heads back and it's hilarious."
Tickles & Giggles appears to be the only spa in the UAE exclusively for children - a concept that is rare even in the West, although many spas in the US offer family packages that include children. Those involved feel it is quintessentially Dubai. "In England you would never see this. I didn't get my ears pierced until I was 17," said Lucasta Cummings, Cosima's mother. The concern, she said, "is the idea that you're making kids grow up too quickly".
She would never bring her daughter in on a regular basis, but rather as a treat or a birthday present, she said. Ms Abbar is a Syrian finance graduate, and an expectant mother, who studied in California before moving to Dubai three years ago. She seems to have made it her mission to pamper children. She said business is booming and there are plans to open other branches in the GCC. "We do manicures, pedicures, we do facials - chocolate, strawberry, oatmeal, honey and yoghurt," she said. But that is not enough. "We're trying to get orange dreamsicle as well."
The in-house hair salon also does hair cuts and styling for the children, with coloured tips for the boys and glittered hair for the girls. Infants going for their first haircut also get a lock of hair and a certificate. "Spoiled kids nowadays," says Ms Abbar, laughing. With 32 colours of M&Ms in the party section of Tickles & Giggles, and 17 flavours of shampoo for the children, including banana split, caramel apple and chocolate cupcake, who could blame them?
Al the same,Ms Abbar said, we need to differentiate between the occasional treat and the systematic pampering that will make children become adults a lot sooner than they should. "Kids will be kids at the end of the day. Whatever you do you have to do it in an innocent way," Ms Abbar said. "It is still childish, pink, fun and it's meant to be a break from school, studying, homework, stuff like that. It's not meant to be religiously every day I need to go get a manicure or pedicure kind of thing."
However, some of her regular customers bring their children over once every 10 days. Others try to book spa treatments for babies as young a year old. "I'm not judging," she said, "but I think it's more for the mums than it is for the kids." Dr Essam Emem, a psychiatrist at Tawam Hospital, warned that the focus on children's appearance, as opposed to teaching them a healthy lifestyle and exercise, could have negative effects on children.
It could lead them to think that appearance is paramount, amplifying self-confidence problems, potentially causing eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia. "We're teaching kids younger than 12 years old to focus on manicures and facials and soft skin," he said. "You need to focus more on what is inside them." Ms Abbar maintains, however, that she sees the spa treatment as a sort of treat for the kids, and she stocks Madonna's English Roses series of books rather than magazines to encourage them to read.
Cosima, for one, seems to enjoy the attention. She picks out pink nail polish for her feet, and then mismatched violet and blue for her fingernails. "My daughter is a punk," exclaimed Mrs Cummings, feigning surprise. As if to stress the point, Cosima begins waving her lollipop foot scrub as the music in the spa gets a little louder. The music fits in well with the shop's other main activity - party planning. Themed paraphernalia, including monster trucks, dinosaurs and, of course, pirates, line the wall along with at least 10 different shades of pink cutlery.
Only the best-trained children can lay out the tables properly, though. Not to worry, because Tickles & Giggles plans to offer etiquette classes for the children to help with their table layout skills. Ms Abbar sees the endeavour as part of a learning experience for kids. It's not that she's setting the scene for them to simply get spoiled. That scene has already been set. "It's about being pampered and it's about being ready for life," she said.
"Your average girl now starts getting a manicure and a pedicure when she's four or five years old. Back in my day that never happened. "With birthday parties, we were happy with a balloon and cake, but now these parties are like mini-weddings. So times have changed and it's good to get them ready." It is also a chance to maintain relationships at home. "Take a breather and spend an hour with your child," she tells mothers.