Teaching children about their hair can facilitate a healthy relationship with their locks and, ultimately, a healthier self-image.

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An image of a Black mother and daughter smiling outdoors.
Credit: Getty Images.

Children with coily and kinky hair learn early through media imagery and societal beauty standards that their hair is considered difficult or unruly. Without the proper support and education, their parents may struggle to maintain and style their hair in ways that are healthy for its pattern and texture, inadvertently reinforcing these messages. However, parents can break generational patterns of hair trauma by teaching their children proper love and care. 

Though we know that discrimination based on skin color and hair texture can affect children, studies have only recently begun to take a closer look at its socioemotional toll. In May, researchers at New Orleans' Tulane School of Social Work and Department of Psychology began studying the psychological stress and trauma associated with the messages children receive about their hair and skin color. Through responses to a survey that examined topics like hair type, tender-headedness and racial resentment, researchers have gathered information that they expect will support a long history of discrimination. "Our goal is for people to recognize how racism hurts children," says Marva Lewis, associate professor at Tulane and principal researcher. "And that's a hurt that may last a lifetime."

Afiya Mbilishaka, a clinical psychologist and hairstylist in Silver Spring, Maryland, deals with these kinds of deeply-ingrained issues firsthand.

In her own practice, Psychohairapy, Mbilishaka counsels clients from one of the most vulnerable seats in the house: the salon chair. While having their hair styled, clients open up about life's concerns, including hair insecurities. It's the same hair insecurities she knows parents often project onto children. 

According to Mbilishaka, parents may integrate perceptions rooted in their own childhood relationships with their hair, like the notion that "beauty is pain," into what they teach their children. "I think a lot of us grew up getting hit with a comb or brush, or our parents ignored us when we said [haircare] hurt and didn't acknowledge how tender-headed we were," she says. 

For some parents, learning how to care for a hair type that differs from their own is a difficult undertaking. Mercedes Medwinter, 44, is white and has thin, straight hair. Her daughter, Lourdes, has thick, curly locks she says are high maintenance. 

"I've been searching for the perfect products for my 6-year-old, and it's been three years," says Medwinter. "I've been learning how many times a week I should wash it, and I use extra conditioner when we get out of the pool—just making sure it has extra moisture." Nonetheless, she ends up hurting Lourdes when detangling her hair. 

 Since Medwinter struggles to style and maintain her hair, Lourdes only has reason to believe that her hair is the problem, even though her mom tells her that her curls are beautiful. Lourdes also spends more time with Medwinter's side of her family than she does with the Black members of her family, who live in Jamaica and share her hair texture. Having nobody to relate to can be tough for children with hair like Lourdes. 

Medwinter described an instance when Lourdes played hairdresser with a white cousin, and she began to cry when she realized that her cousin couldn't get a brush through her hair. "Lourdes cries some days because she wants straight yellow hair, so I try to show her pictures of women with her hair and how beautiful it is," says Medwinter.  

Medwinter considers acquiescing to her daughter's pleas for straight hair by having it professionally straightened. But she was hoping that finding products that work for her hair will help. She recently began using Pattern, a collection of hair products by Traces Ellis Ross, and was finally able to comb her daughter's hair with less pain. As a biracial woman, Ross is familiar with the experience of having curly hair, and her formulas have been effective in moisturizing and defining Lourdes's fine, coily curls. 

Philadelphia-based curl specialist Victoria McCutcheon thinks that part of the stress that comes with having curly hair lies with the implications of the language we use about it. For example, curls don't need "taming" per se, but love, which can help build children's confidence in their hair. McCutcheon says proper styling is what can help kids to love their hair texture instead of merely tolerating it. 

"Children should learn how to style their hair so they can form some independence when it comes to maintaining their hair, and so they are able to express themselves and develop personal style," says McCutcheon. 

When children don't learn what works best for them and their hair, the consequence may be unnecessary damage to the health of hair, which further exacerbates negative feelings toward it. Children may be subjected to chemical damage through treatments and straighteners that are applied in an attempt to produce a more manageable, Eurocentric texture. 

McCutcheon takes a thoughtful, tailored approach to curl care, treating each client differently. "I like to walk the parents and the children through the process, from start to finish. Showing them [that haircare] doesn't have to be difficult with the proper products, tools, and techniques." She says this can empower kids to love the hair they are born with, something that many older relatives may not have had the opportunity to do.

She encourages families to identify a child's hair type using a curl chart, which can give insight into moisture needs and even the proper comb to use. However, finding an expert is her best piece of advice, since haircare is often trial and error. 

Though children are never too young to learn about their hair, hair therapist Afiya Mbilishaka points out that by sixth grade, children begin to pick up on physical differences. "It starts in first grade, but it's more pronounced by middle school," she says. 

That's also when the bullying or hair shaming by peers often begins.  This teasing can lead to struggles with depression, anxiety, or aggression, or decreased wellbeing and self-worth. 

Learning proper hair care is empowering for kids, but must accompany self-love and acceptance of their differences. They can only learn this part from their parents.

"Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them,"  says Mbilishaka, quoting James Baldwin. "If parents begin to love their hair, that becomes modeled for children."