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Vernon Francios and his daughter, Xena

Parental Arts

How To Help Kids Embrace Their Hair

For celebrity hairstylist and educator Vernon François, doing hair is about embracing what you were born with. When he’s not busy prepping Lupita Nyong’o and Serena Williams for the red carpet, Vernon devotes his time to teaching parents and children alike how to care for - and celebrate - natural hair. Here, Vernon shares some tips on how to care for your little one’s hair in a stress-free and positive way.

1. You champion all hair textures and are particularly recognized for your work with afro and curly hair. So much of what you teach about celebrating what you were born with comes from how you experienced hair care as a child. What do you remember most about that time?

Hair has always been my obsession. One of my earliest memories is of me and my brothers having our hair done every Sunday for the week ahead while the dinner was cooking. Just thinking of it now, the comforting aroma of rice and peas cooking on the stove comes flooding back. We were raised in a Rastafarian household in a small town in the north of England, went to events like carnival, and embraced our hair’s true texture. As well as being afro-textured, my hair is also red, so hair has always been a big part of my identity and upbringing. My experience as a child helped to shape my mission of encouraging people to embrace their hair’s true texture because I learned from an early age that authenticity is an important part of who we are. I taught myself how to braid, loc and twist using the untangled strands of a mop head, after my mother – who got tired of hearing me complain about how uncomfortable it was when she was doing it – told me to do it myself. I was eight years old. It was an eureka moment because from that moment on, I would create with anything I could lay my hands on. Over the years, I’ve learned that fear is what holds people back from embracing their own or their children’s true texture. The solution is education.

2. Does your mission feel even more pressing now that you have a daughter of your own?

The impact of educating others about embracing their hair’s true texture, and that of their kids, can be transformative on many levels. I’m not sure that becoming a parent has made this mission any more important, but it has enabled me to live it from another perspective. Seeing my daughter grow up with a genuine love of her hair, looking in the mirror and saying “wow” at how big it is, being confident with accessories, knowing how to twist and detangle her own hair – all of these things are having a positive knock-on effect on her self-esteem and sense of who she is. The future is in our hands and as parents one of the most important things is to be aware of our own mindset when we approach our own hair and that of our children.

3. That’s so true! We are responsible for setting our kids up for success. Where do you start?

Like many adults, I vividly remember having my hair done as a child, and it wasn’t pleasant. Young scalps are sensitive, and it can be hard for some kids to sit still for even a short amount of time, right? The whole process of detangling, washing and styling can be time consuming and stressful for everyone involved. Over many years I developed my own technique for detangling and braiding that does not pull or hurt. Working with parents and kids has always been something that I’ve done because I’m passionate about showing that there is another way than just copying what was done before. I’ll work with parents and kids as a two-way process. Listening to the kids, getting them involved at every step, reframing how we approach hair from something that has to be done “to” children to something we do “with” children, so that it becomes a positive experience - enjoyable even! In the UK, I ran the Vernon François Academy in London where every Sunday parents and guardians would come with their kids to learn how to improve the relationship with their kinks, coils, curls and waves. There were similar workshops I ran for Kids’ Company in London; and for World Afro Day I engaged with kids to help set a record for the world’s largest hair education lesson. Strahan, Sarah and Keke on Good Morning America showed a clip recently of a child talking about how she’d learned to detangle hair by watching me on the show; and there are countless parents who come to me directly for advice via Instagram. Most often fear is the barrier. Fear of not knowing what to do, maybe because their child has a different texture to them, fear of causing pain, fear of not knowing techniques. Education and approaching children’s hair with a positive mindset are key.

Xéla knows that big and frizzy are good things.

4. How do you nurture and grow Xéla’s love for her own hair?

Choosing kind words when talking about hair is vital. So are affirmations and talking about the hair’s qualities in a positive way. I’ll say: “Look how big, fluffy and beautiful your hair is!” Xéla knows that big and frizzy are good things. Approaching her hair with respect, excitement; getting her involved in detangling, washing, styling; all these things help to set her up for success through a positive perception of and relationship with her hair. We talk about what is happening and she’ll be involved with what’s going on, like helping to twist her hair. She knows the names of what we use – wide tooth comb, afro comb – knows what different products are for, and gets hands-on with them. Before going near her hair I make sure we’re both in the right frame of mind, either by choosing the moment wisely or creating a positive atmosphere. It might mean playing a song from her favorite movie, singing, or have a little dance party first. Knowing that kinks and curls behave differently on different days also helps, so there’s always that flexibility to do something different than you may have started out to. Letting the hair be free can be just as important as getting it into a “style” sometimes.

5. Ok, so let’s start with the basics: washing hair. What is your advice for ensuring a smoother experience?

Firstly, always choose a sulfate-free shampoo; it will not create a big lather like traditional ones and is much kinder to hair. Only use a small amount and smooth it from the roots to the ends of the hair, instead of scrunching hair on top of and into the head. This will help the outside surface of the hair to lay flat making detangling less of an issue - also this motion sweeps product away from the eyes. Keep the conversation flowing, explain what you’re doing and why. Get the child involved, encourage them to touch their hair, give them something to hold like a favorite toy or a cup so they can help wet their hair. If your child has a lot of hair, sectioning it into two or four even parts might make it easier for you to get the shampoo where it’s needed, working through one section at a time. Choose a time to do this when you are not going to be rushed. Another tip is to detangle the hair before you get it wet and do the shampooing, which will make for an altogether easier experience. Something I’ve been doing with Xéla recently – now that we have more time on our hands – is breaking the washing process down into steps over the course of the day, gradually building up to doing it. Also know that washing doesn’t mean you must shampoo the hair every time, you can wet it and run a bit of conditioner through the ends like a conditioning wash or “co wash”. Cleansing and conditioning at the same time is a simple and effective way of gently washing out any sand, dust or dirt that may have built up at day care. I’ll always recommend talking to the child at every stage and involving them in what’s happening.

6. And what about detangling hair? Do you have any tips to share for more positive outcomes for all?

Many of us know that hair expands in water, so one of the things that I find effective is trying to detangle most of the hair before getting it wet or going overboard with conditioner. I always use my fingers and palms of the hands for this, working from the ends of the hair upwards, stopping to gently massage out any tangles, which can be more sensitive and effective than a brush or comb. A lot of people reach for conditioner as a quick fix, but in doing that the child misses out on the experience of learning that there are stages involved to achieving a desired result. It’s important to know that the best route to achieving something is not necessarily the shortest one. By resisting the temptation to cut corners you are teaching important lessons in patience, process and preparation. As the child gets older, this mindset will help in the management of their own expectations; they will be ready to take accountability for things like their hair style, cut or color choices. Fundamentally, this is the cause of a lot of anxiety for many adults, because we’ve lost the skills in understanding that achieving a desired look requires preparation.