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Adoption Blog: Melting Pot Family

Does Good Hair Equal Good Parenting?

Before our daughter, Leyla, joined our family from Ethiopia, an African-American family friend informed me, "Our hair and skin is not like yours. You try to take the oils out. We work to put them back in." Many of my friends and acquaintances of color told me I may be judged as a mother by how well I took care of my daughter's hair. I admit, at first I was a bit skeptical. But then I began noticing writing reinforcing that view. I saw comments in blogs critiquing Angelina Jolie for not taming her Ethiopian daughter’s hair based on one or two pictures. Another one applauded the neat braids Madonna’s Malawai-born daughter sported. Would I be judged? And if so, how would I react to it? 

When we first met our daughter, I guiltily was a bit relieved she had large, loose curls. I thought—as someone with naturally wavy hair that tends towards frizzy in humidity and two sons with straight hair and odd cowlicks in the back requiring either quite short or quite long styles—I should be able to handle them. Then an African-American woman at Leyla's daycare burst my bubble as she cheerfully proclaimed, "Her curls will get much tighter as she gets older." Sure enough, as my daughter’s lovely black hair grew, it became curlier and curlier. Taking care of it became proportionately more challenging for a novice in the intricacies of curly hair like me.  

When my daughter was nearing 1 year old, I attended a high school basketball game where many of the fans were African-American. One of the mothers, a redheaded Caucasian woman married to an African-American ex-pro football player, approached me. She said some of the players’ moms asked her to tell me which conditioners I should use on my daughter’s hair since it looked quite dry. 

The wind was knocked out of me. I felt I'd been judged as a mother and found to be completely lacking. It stung more than I cared to admit. I relayed the exchange to my husband, trying to keep my voice light because I was not sure I wanted to share how much it had cut me. Also, at some level, I knew I was probably overreacting. When he responded, “She owns a salon. I am sure that is the reason she approached you with some advice,” I felt a bit foolish. But the feelings of inadequacy lingered. 

Determined my daughter’s hair would reflect my intense and enduring love for her, I dug out materials from a hair-care class I took through WACAP, our adoption agency. I tried a number of products and hair utensils recommended for African-American hair in my research and by the salon owner from the basketball game. No brush I tried seemed to get through her hair without difficulty and tears. The wide-tooth combs were no better. And although the leave-in conditioners recommended for African-American hair I bought helped a bit with the tangles, her hair was usually frizzy by midday.

With no real sign of improvement, I abandoned the research and just experimented with products I knew from my hair-modeling days years back. I ditched the combs and brushes and just used my fingers. I loved playing with her hair as I gently detangled and massaged her scalp. Success ... finally!! 

From that point on, once I've attended to this hair-care ritual for the day, my daughter’s little ringlets bounce and gleam. The added bonus? We both enjoy it. We begin by wetting her hair with a large spray bottle—with Leyla cautioning me, “Not too much, Mama!” (she doesn’t like the cool water to trickle down her neck)—and I then cover my hands with leave-in conditioner and rub it into her hair. My fingers gently work to get out the "yuckies" (Leyla's word for tangles). Finally, I pull her hair into long spirals, which I keep off her face using a soft headband or by pulling it into one or two ponytails.

Before bedtime, she will often bring me the spray bottle and shriek, “Get the boys!” After we switch the nozzle from spray to stream, we chase her brothers around the house and hit them wherever and however we can. Their laughter and excitement bounce off the walls and send warm ripples through my belly.

Not too long after we began our ritual, we were in the crowd watching my son's soccer game when a mother whose son has thick, tight curls like Leyla's walked over to me. She asked, “What products do you use? Your daughter’s hair looks so healthy.” Though I don’t subscribe to the idea that good hair means good parenting, I did feel, in some small way, the effort I took to learn to care for her hair was being acknowledged. I was filled with both a sense of accomplishment as well as of irony. Little did she know how far I had come to be able to answer her question.   

But the acknowledgement I value the most came later from a beautifully coifed Ethiopian woman we met at our local cultural center. She said simply, “You are doing a good job with your daughter’s hair.” I could have cried right then and there. Because, regardless of the complex emotions I had about being judged for how well I keep up my daughter's appearances, through the process of my hair-care experimentation, I realized there is more than a superficial or even competitive parenting element at play: Good hair is a cultural issue, too. And hearing these words, I no longer felt I was failing my daughter in this important part of her identity. 

Of course, Leyla has her own unique take on everything. I recently took her hair out of what she terms a "pony tower" (any ponytail placed high up on her head). We chuckled together as we gazed in the bathroom mirror at her tiny face surrounded by the full, untamed glory of her extended curls. She looked at me, with a mischievous twinkle in her black eyes and a giggle in her voice, and said, “Let’s pop it, Mama!” She had recently learned to pop balloons from her brothers. I didn’t know how to explain to her that we could not elicit the same sound from her hair. So instead, I just followed her lead and threw back my head and laughed out loud!

How have you learned to care for the hair of a child with a different hairstyle than your own?

More on Transracial Parenting From Adoptive Families Magazine:

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I have 4 children with tight curls and I feel like a failure every day. With 5 kids and the oldest being 5.5 I know I let my own feelings of hair failure transfer to them. I do puffballs or 6 ponytails once a week and have recently started using Carols Daughters products but I am not competent with my own hair so I feel like a bad mom already. When I see moms with daughters hair done beautifully I wonder if my children would have been better off with a mom that could help them with one of the most important parts of the Black Culture. We don’t live in an area that offers any help in that area and I’ve learned all I can from the Internet and magazines.
I ask others I see for tips and they are not always friendly with their responses, clearly I should have thought about my lack of hair experience before adopting.

By Wubyoumama on Tuesday, April 19, 2011 at 6:32 pm.

I have straight hair that wouldn’t tangle if I left it unbrushed for a decade. My daughters have curly hair - one with tight curls, one with looser wavy curls. It’s taken me almost three years to come up with a system for their hair.

The best thing I did, besides trying almost everything I could get my hands on, was asking women with hair like my daughters what they used or would recommend. I’ve gotten so much great advice that way and it helped me feel like I was being more proactive in helping my daughters love their hair.

By KCHK on Tuesday, April 19, 2011 at 6:40 pm.

I have found that African-American women are leaning more toward natural hairstyles, often cut very short, as opposed to having their hair relaxed or in tight braids. This is great news for me! My husband and I adopted our daughter (adoption #6) at birth and her hair was soft with loose curls. It quickly turned into a much tighter curl. We tried every product known to mankind, when a lovely, older woman of color said to me, “Just cut it short, and let her decide when she is older if she wants all sorts of products in her hair.” Now we keep her hair short, she loves, we love it, and we get comments all the time, from every shade of skin, about how adorable she is. She likes pretty barrettes and headbands from time to time, but usually she likes to keep it free from any products at all.

By The Hosmer Family on Tuesday, April 19, 2011 at 7:24 pm.

HI Wubyoumama,

Thank you for sharing your experience.  I think your screen name points to the most important parenting quality - love. 

You obviously recognize caring for your children’s hair is important and are making the effort which counts for a lot in my book.  I would keep experimenting and hopefully get some more positive helpful feedback. 

Sharing this suggestion from a facebook comment on this post:  Kim Keller Louis wrote “This website has been very helpful to me in caring for my daughter’s hair.”  LMK if that helps.

Also asking other AFC readers to share suggestions with you. Hang in there!


By Ellenore Angelidis on Wednesday, April 20, 2011 at 5:55 am.


I appreciate your suggestion.  I also admire your patience and perseverence. I think asking for help, which is hard for many parents, can provide a wealth of information.  And obviously sticking with it can lead to success . . .even if it doesn’t happen overnight. All the best,


By Ellenore Angelidis on Wednesday, April 20, 2011 at 5:58 am.

The Hosmer Family,

What a wonderfully simple approach.  Glad to hear that option and how you applied it in your family.  I think you received some sage counsel from the woman you mentioned. 


By Ellenore Angelidis on Wednesday, April 20, 2011 at 6:01 am.

Great Post!! smile Baby hair PERIOD can be so different! I know I keep my godchildren, and though they are Caucasian like myself, I find their hair fine and static y! I plan on reading up on haircare for infants and toddlers now!! smile I think this blog is GREAT, hair and skin can differ tremendously, knowing how to care for it is VERY important, you may never be a pro, and not always have time, THAT is fine in my book, but KNOWING and taking the time to deal is!!

By LisaBelanger on Wednesday, April 20, 2011 at 5:01 pm.

Thanks so much for sharing Lisa, 

That is very true ..  I had to work for a while with my boys to find a cut that didn’t have their hair in the back sticking up like they were sprouting smile

A good friend of color provided an insightful comment on this post on facebook.  Sharing a portion here:

“And I am glad you were able to overcome your fear of inadequacy and/or being judged to develop the knowledge you would need to keep Leyla’s hair healthy. Good hair? Bad hair? I think the key is healthy hair… smile

I think she nailed it succiently (she is an author and has a way with words).  . . healthy hair is the objective.


By Ellenore Angelidis on Wednesday, April 20, 2011 at 5:13 pm.

My little beauty is 1 now and has a while to go before I can play around with her hair too much.  I have found a few websites with some great tips and videos that have made me feel empowered with knowledge and excited to work with her hair.  Here are some of my favorites:

Yahoo groups - join the African American Hair and Skincare group!  They have TONS of advice and you can ask any question you have.  That’s where I found most of the following links:

Some good websites for products:

Great hair butter can be purchased here: Waajid.aspx

By bluebab25 on Friday, April 22, 2011 at 1:50 pm.


Wow, great resources and information here. Thank so much for sharing!  You will be well prepared as your little beauty needs your help. Keep us posted on what you try and what you learn.  All the best,


By Ellenore Angelidis on Friday, April 22, 2011 at 5:21 pm.
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Ellenore Angelidis

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