Hair Brushing Is a Safety Issue

Welcome to the April 2012 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Kids and Personal Care

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants have shared stories, tips, and struggles relating to their children’s personal care choices.

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hair brushing
I didn’t realize this a few years ago, but my daughter’s extreme aversion to hair brushing was a safety issue in many ways. True, tangles aren’t exactly a safety issue. Self-confidence and body boundaries are, though.

Three of my four kidlets are fine with getting their hair brushed. The oldest, however, has always been incredibly sensitive and loathes it. We try to be a low-coercion family, meaning that we seek respectful, mutual solutions as much as possible. Forcing a safety issue is one thing–my middle daughter dislikes being strapped into her carseat, but although we have tried many things, including purchasing a more comfortable seat, she is still buckled up if we have to go somewhere. But hairbrushing? How do you make a safety issue out of that? Honey, if you get too many tangles … what? What dire outcome results from that? Your hair will look messy. OK, she is willing to live with that.

The consequence of messy hair is that she doesn’t fit with what our culture considers pretty. Do I really want to teach her to go through discomfort so that she will meet someone else’s standards for beauty? No. Flat out no. I don’t want her to be so afraid of someone disliking her appearance that she will violate her own standards just in hopes of appeasing her peers. If I force her to comb her hair so that she will fit in with our society’s rules for attractiveness now, what will happen five or six years from now when they want her to diet to alter body shape, or wear provocative clothing or anything else? Conforming and submitting to peer pressure are not on my list of goals for my kids.

Should she just do it because I want her to? Because if I am honest, my reasons are not particularly good ones. My own pride, mainly — I don’t want to look like a neglectful mom. She isn’t my fashion accessory, though. She is a person who should have rights over her own body.

And that is the safety issue. I don’t want her to learn that other people have a right to do what they want with her body. That an adult can force her to do something uncomfortable, even painful, through physical or emotional coercion simply because it pleases them. If I teach her that she is powerless to resist something as trivial as a hairstyle, how will she learn that her no should be respected by everyone? I have known far too many who were abused and never even told their parents because they had learned too well that adults could do whatever they wanted to children’s bodies.

I admit, there are days when the Judy Moody look gets to me. I still encourage her to brush it, particularly before participating in special occasions. And believe me, we have tried everything to make it more comfortable for her. Some things help a bit, especially slathering it with tons of conditioner in the tub, waiting awhile and then gently combing through. She still dislikes it, though.

So I try to look beyond the tangles and see the confidence of a young girl who doesn’t feel pressured to look like everyone else, who knows that her body belongs to her and that she has the right to make her own decisions. And you know what? That is beautiful. She is beautiful.

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Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

  • Holistic Care of your Toddler’s Teeth — Erica at ChildOrganics tells a tale of her children’s teeth issues and how she uses homeopathy and good nutrition to keep cavities at bay.
  • Bath Time Bliss : Fuss-Free Bath Time for Toddlers — Christine at African Babies Don’t Cry shares how she has made bath time completely fuss free for both her and her toddler.
  • Homemade Natural ToothpasteCity Kids Homeschooling hosts a guest post on a homemade natural toothpaste recipe that kids will love!
  • Bathing Strike StrategiesCrunchy Con Mommy offers her best tips for keeping your little ones clean when they refuse to bathe.
  • Bodily Autonomy and Personal Hygeine — Mandy at Living Peacefully with Children discusses the importance of supporting a child’s bodily autonomy in the prevention of abuse.
  • A Tub Full of Kiddos! — Kat at Loving {Almost} Every Moment has kiddos who love the water, so bathtime is a favorite evening activity!
  • The Trials of Tidying My Toddler — Adrienne at Mommying My Way shares the difficulties she has with getting her on-the-go son to be still enough to get clean.
  • Wiped Clean — Laura at Pug in the Kitchen shares her recipe for homemade diaper wipe solution to clean those sweet little cloth diapered bottoms in her home!
  • Snug in a Towel: Embracing Personal Grooming — Personal care is time consuming,especially with more than one child; but the mama at Our Muddy Boots is learning to embrace this fleeting and needful time.
  • EC: All or Nothing? — Elimination Communication. Even the title sounds complicated and time consuming. It doesn’t have to, if you adapt it to meet your family’s needs, says Jennifer at True Confessions of a Real Mommy.
  • Routine Battles — In a guest post at Anktangle, Jorje of Momma Jorje outlines a simple incentive to help inspire your little one to follow a routine.
  • Redefining Beauty For My Daughter — Justine at The Lone Home Ranger relays her struggle to define her own femininity and how her preschooler unexpectedly taught her a lesson in true beauty.
  • Rub-A-Dub-Dub, Three Girls In The Tub — Chrystal at Happy Mothering shares how she turns bath time into a few minutes of peace and quiet.
  • Montessori-Inspired Activities for Care of Self — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now has a roundup of Montessori-inspired activities for care of self and ideas for home environments that encourage independence.
  • 10 Gentle Tips for Little Ones Who Hate the Bath — Kim at life-is-learning gives 10 tips to get your little one into the bath and maybe even enjoying it.
  • The Boy With The Long Hair — Liam at In The Now discusses his son’s grooming choices.
  • Personal Care in a Montessori Home — Melissa at Vibrant Wanderings shares a summary of the ways she has organized her family’s home to make for easy, Montessori-inspired toddler personal care.
  • Styling Kids — Kellie at Our Mindful Life is letting her kids decide what to look like.
  • Clean Kids: Laundry and Bath Tips — Kimberly at Homeschooling in Nova Scotia shares tips on how to get your children helping with laundry plus recipes for laundry and liquid soap.
  • How to Clean Your Children Naturally: A Tutorial — Erika at Cinco de Mommy shows you how to clean your children.
  • Cleaniliness is next to… dirt — The lapse-prone eco-mom (Kenna at Million Tiny Things) sometimes forgets to bathe the kids. Except in the mud pit.


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Dulce is learning to walk in grace with her amazing husband and four wonderful kidlets. She is a perpetual provider of magic mami milk who practices gentle discipline, shares a family bed, homeschools, teaches Spanish, and blogs at Dulce de leche. Each day brings plenty of iced coffee and a fresh lesson in trusting her children, herself and the Love that surrounds and fills us. Sometimes it feels like livin’ a vida loca, but overall, life is incredibly sweet.

87 Responses to Hair Brushing Is a Safety Issue

  1. Dionna  

    Oh wow – I really love this post, and it will surely spark some debate. There are so many factors we could discuss (together on this post or with our own families): giving a child the autonomy to make a hygiene decision, recognizing that society values certain hygienic practices, discussing the role of cultural norms/peer pressure, understanding the larger issue of forcing children to succumb to force . . . I am guilty of using a certain amount of coercion to get Kieran to conform to social pressures of bathing, brushing his hair, etc. – the next time he balks, I will have your post in mind to spark a conversation and give him back the control.

    • Dulce

      Thank you so much! You are right–it is a pretty complex issue when you start to explore all the ramifications. It is hard, because we want to protect our children from negative social consequences, too. There are so many points of view to consider!

  2. Lindsay  

    I really like this post. Thank you so much for writing it! For us, our daughter has had a strong aversion to hairbrushing as well. She loves having long hair, and she requests braids regularly. We also try to avoid coercion (love your phrasing on that,too!). Our tactic was an all-out search for the perfect products and techniques. We found a fabulous shampoo and leave-in conditioner (Beautiful Curls by Alaffia) that has seriously improved the process, we got a wonderful detangler brush (the Knot Genie), and we let her pick a distracting activity to do while we do a weekly brush-out. We let her know that brushing daily is easier than weekly. We tested the theory a few times and she agreed that it doesn’t hurt if we do it twice a day. It has gotten much, much easier. We also encourage her to find ways to express and address her discomfort (Ouch! Can we take a break? Okay, you can start again).

  3. Erica @ ChildOrganics  

    Very interesting post, you brought out many points that I haven’t considered in my own situation. I have the exact same struggles with my oldest daughter. She is very sensitive to having her hair brushed, and when she does it herself..well, it looks horrible. For a long time a shorter style haircut made a big difference. Now she wants her hair long, but we discussed if she wants long hair that she needs to be responsible for the care of it. This includes brushing and washing it properly.
    I don’t take the same approach as you, though I appreciate your take on it. Thanks for giving me a new point of view to consider.

    • Dulce

      Thank you so much, Erica. My daughter wants long hair, too, even though she doesn’t want to brush it. There are so many different things to consider, including the responsibility aspect. I love being able to discuss things like this and get new perspectives!

  4. Justine @ The Lone Home Ranger  

    I agree with your decision to grant her the personal space and freedom of not having her hair brushed, but I had never thought of it as a safety issue…until now. Thanks for your thoughtful analysis.

    As for her tangles, I have two ideas:
    1) Cut her hair! My daughter just got her first short hair cut and (surprising everyone) loves it. I wrote about the experience for today’s carnvial.
    2) Have you tried “no poo” (i.e. baking soda and apple cider vinegar) for the wash/rinse in the tub? The smell goes away after rinsing, and you will never find an more gentle detangler.

    • Dulce

      Thank you so much, Justine! I loved your post. There is so much food for thought in it! And your daughter is absolutely adorable, in both pics! :) We have tried no poo, and it helps some. She hates getting her hair cut and really wants it long. :)

  5. Sheila  

    Thank you for taking the time to share this. There is so much to think about here. I personally let my daughter go wilder and dirtier than most people would (than the grandmothers would like, certainly). Hair has arisen as a point of contention. My parents have always been trying to comb my hair down, brush it straight and “neat.” My mother in law immediately brushed my daughter’s hair and put it in the same little pigtail/knots that she wears in her hair, even to the point of hounding her about it when she doesn’t want to…until we talked to her about it. Now she still does it, but not always and not immediately. Even on Skype my parents comment on her hair. I don’t know what it is, but hair is a big deal apparently.

    Here’s what’s been going on for me that is related to this (in my mind). I don’t own makeup, don’t shave, not too focused on my appearance. This has been an evolution, but I just don’t take a lot of energy on that stuff. My daughter will have her own journey, I know, but here is the situation. My mother in law is a regular pedicure/manicure, hair dyeing, eyebrow dyeing, and such kind of person. Those are her choices, and everyone gets theirs. How can I navigate these conversations and life with her since she watches my daughter often, for which I am grateful and glad?

    My daughter is very verbal and observant. She asked about my MIL’s earrings and my MIL told her to ask mommy if she can get her ears pierced. My daughter asked her about her purple nails and my MIL said they were painted “aren’t they pretty?” My MIL explained she had to go get her hair cut and when I came home my daughter told me that she needed an appointment to get her hair cut because it gets in her eyes.

    There are a few things going on here. I don’t need anyone, including my daughter, to do what I do and don’t do around my appearance. However, I want her to make her own choices. How can I respect that? For instance, she was bald for so long and has fought for every cm of hair, and I want to leave it uncut for some time (as I will with my son). My daughter would not have learned about haircutting from my husband or I because we don’t cut our hair. I know she will learn things from other people, but it’s hard for me to know what she wants and what she is just mimicking.

    On top of all that is the fact that I want my daughter to have her own healthy opinion of her own body and appearance. I don’t want to pass on my body issues or anyone else’s to her. My feeling is that if my MIL wants to do all these things, feels compelled, actually, to do these things that is her choice. How can I talk to her about how she talks to my daughter about it or my hopes for my daughter’s self/body image?

    Sorry to go on about this, but it literally has come up in the last two weeks with such a force. I’ve been kind of blind-sided about it, and it is important to me.

    Thanks again for sharing,
    sheila
    alivingfamily.com

    • Dulce

      Oh, Sheila! I can so relate to the whole grandma situation! It is really hard. Especially when they are very…sensitive…to any implied criticism. Ahem. How old is your daughter? Is she old enough for you to explain to her privately how you feel, and then back her up when it comes up around your MIL? Or is she still young enough that you need to respond more directly to your MIL? It is hard to peacefully navigate those relationships sometimes!

  6. Sara M

    This article really hits home for me. My almost-6 year old has never liked having her hair combed or brushed. And now she is at a point where she fights EVERYTHING. I have been making a sincere effort to avoid the power struggles, but it is hard. But when I think about it now, it bothered me more when she wanted to look perfect (with bows and frills) like all the other girls. I should embrace the fact that she doesn’t have that need anymore.
    Thanks again for the insight.

    • Dulce

      Thank you so much for the encouragement, Sara! 6 is a tough age, too. I think of it as 3 times 2. I am so glad that you and your daughter are finding peaceful ways to navigate through it!

  7. Crunchy Con Mommy  

    My son has curly messy hair and I just cut it short-I miss the curls, but it looks so much easier and is much easier to maintain now. I think I would probably make my own daughter brush her hair/let me brush it or get it cut short, but mostly so it would look nice at Church. I don’t really care about what anyone thinks of my kids’ hair any other time though!

    • Dulce

      I totally understand. My parents were pastors, and some of the fiercest battles between my mom and me took place right before church and were centered on my appearance. I always wanted to wear jeans, and she wanted me to wear frilly dresses. :)

  8. Lauren  

    Beautiful, truly. I was really wondering from your title which angle you were going to take with this one, and I love it! There are so many hangups we have as parents that relate more to shame and cultural expectations than to true hygiene needs.

    My only recommendation for making combing the tangles more comfortable was what you already said: tons of conditioner and combing only when wet. My only additional suggestion would be to buy a super wide-tooth comb if you haven’t already. I can’t believe the difference that made for me; I can now barely feel the tangles coming undone.

    But I know you weren’t writing asking for advice, so I’ll just say again: Bravo, for this post, and for being a parent who respects your daughter’s bodily autonomy and teaches her to do the same.

  9. audrey

    I had the same issue as a kid. My hair is very curly and very, very thick, and hairbrushing was annoying at best and really painful at worst. My mom tried just about everything too, eventually an awful chin length cut that I hated with a passion.
    I’m posting because now, at age 23, I love my healthy, soft, waist length hair…and haven’t used a hairbrush in about 5 years. It is possible. Use plenty of a good conditioner, leave a little of it on the hair when rinsing, and then gently work out tangled with your fingers from the ends of the hair up. Don’t pull, let the strands slide out of the tangled. Sometimes a smoothing product helps A LOT, I recommend bioinfusions smoothing serum with silk protein – cheap $3 or $4 bottle can be found at CVS and has lasted me about 6 months…and I have a ton of hair.
    Try the gentle finger combing when hair is totally wet or totally dry. Damp is painful. It takes a little patience, but you can always try it while watching a movie. Just a suggestion, but I feel for your daughter, having been in her situation.
    I hated my hair so much as a kid, and now it is definitely my most complimented feature, I’ve even done some work as a hair model, and I love it myself. Its super healthy from the conditioners, and from not being broken by harsh bristles yanking through it. I’m thinking about finally getting a haircut where I take off more than an inch, only because I’m starting to sit on it, which is a little awkward.
    And I don’t brush it. Ever.

    Maybe worth a try :) good luck.

    • Dulce

      Thank you so much! I really appreciate the suggestions, but even more I love hearing about how lovely your hair is now and how much you enjoy it! Thanks so much for sharing.

  10. Liz F

    I have very, very curly hair and always have had (since birth.) Getting my hair brushed was always a huge chore. My mom didn’t know the definition of gentle! It took a long time (20+ years!) before I actually started to like my hair and find ways to care for it.
    1) I don’t ever brush or comb it dry. Instead, I comb it while in the shower–wet, with conditioner in it.
    2) Use a wide-toothed comb.
    3) Look for no-poo/sulfate-free and silicone-free products (right now I’m raving about Deva Curl products!)

    My hair is so happy and healthy that I can actually finger comb it without hurting myself. It takes a little longer, but it doesn’t hurt at all because whenever I find a snag, I work through it. If it’s particularly stubborn, I use a bit more conditioner on it to make it easier to untangle.

    I know your post was about letting your kids find their own way without conforming to society, but coming from someone who hated her hair for a long time (because it was different, because it was challenging to care for) I feel like these tips are on the verge of lifesaving! Hope they help you :)

  11. Christine @ African Babies Don't Cry  

    This post reminds me so much of my two sisters, they both have particularly sensitive scalps, so they both totally disliked brushing their hair. They didn’t get away with it though, as they were both terrified of getting in trouble at school (our school are strict about appearance), and so they brushed it. But, when it was holidays they would imitate rats nests, and my mom would simply insist that they wear hats ;) What did help was cutting their hair short, much easier for them to manage, and it didn’t knot so readily. But, they are both adults now and have beautiful hair which they keep neat enough now :)

  12. Taryn

    I just had to say– of course she looks beautiful! Kids have messy hair, it’s part of what makes them look wild, fun, spontaneous and…well, kids! A child with every hair in place isn’t having enough fun :P

  13. Naomi

    My eldest daughter has always hated having her hair brushed as well. Until I was in Sally Beauty supply and played with their brushes to see if I could find a non-prickly, softer bristled brush. I have a sensitive scalp (and always have) so I remember how much it can literally hurt to have your hair brushed. This brush worked wonders because it doesn’t hurt her head. :) It was a tad bit more expensive and really doesn’t get all the tangles out but it’s a good way to compromise for those days were she needs to look nicer. :)

    But honestly, if it came down to it? I would likely go the route you are and thank you for posting about it!

  14. Sarah

    Love this post! Though I was ready for a fight when I read the title. I thought you were trying to say a child SHOULD brush their hair to be safe and boy was I ready to argue lol.

    I have 3 little girls the oldest had tangles and smelly hair b/c she chewed it and we didn’t force washing. But it eventually got tot he point where I told her either we washed her hair or she had to sleep in a different bed b/c I couldn’t sleep for the smell. So we washed her hair. The next day she asked to cut her hair. So she did (I posted about this a while ago) and it looked amazing – though I wouldn’t have interfered if it’d looked horrible (IMO) the problem arrived when people reacted. They loved the cut, until they discovered she did it herself.

    My second DD has beautiful, golden, curly hair. And she does not like brushing it. Also doesn’t like washing it. But we’ve found a way around that. I can put her hair up without brushing it, and she usually hops in tot he shower with me once a week and lets the water pour over her. I then condition the tangled ends and we call it good enough. I’ll then use my fingers to brush out tangles and try to brush her hair once it’s dry. Though never force it.

    For Easter the girls all dressed up in their big puffy twirl gowns and we went to mass – hair was not brushed. I would certainly like their hair to be brushed, but I believe, as you said, it is more important for them to know they, and only they, are the bosses of their bodies.

    I really want to point out that this goes beyond just hair. Teeth brushing, face washing, over all bathing. It’s all the same. There are ways to promote hygiene without forcing a child – ever.

    • Dulce

      Sarah, I will look for your post about the haircut! My three year old cut her own hair recently and did an impressive job. Isn’t it amazing what they can do when we give them the opportunity?

  15. Lisa

    Wow, I LOVE this! I have a matted hair son. I am lucky we live in Portland, where dreadlocks are pretty normal lol, but I am sure some people still have sent some barbed thoughts at us. The one we struggle with is clipping nails, because he hates that too, and has actually scratched other people accidentally and even had to go to the ER because he scratched his own cornea! So we do insist on that one, and try to do it respectfully and with alot of empathy and lots of I statements about our own peace of mine. Oh and on a sidenote, I have found one slight safety issue with the the tangles, which is that people have gotten their fingers caught in his hair when playing physically, and it can get pulled pretty hard. He understands this risk and still chooses his mats, though, and I think it is his choice to make!

    • Dulce

      Thank you so much, Lisa! We actually looked at the possibility of dreads, but it seemed like a lot of initial work and that there might be some maintenance difficulties (not to mention the challenge of convincing my husband ;)). I love them on other people, though!

  16. olya

    My oldest daughter is very sensitive to brushing as well, yet she likes it when her hair is clean and brushed, it’s very straight and silky. She still hates brushing it daily, so it always gets tangles in the back of her head. We don’t bathe our kids every day (*gasp* :), but after we do, everyone gets to watch a show while we brush their hair. We don’t have TV and don’t watch shows every day, so to them it’s exciting enough to be distracted from the discomfort of hair brushing.

    I do remember being a child and having to go through the pain of hair brushing every single morning. It almost always resulted in tears from me and anger from my mother. So it’s a pretty easy choice for me to respect my daughter’s wishes and let her be in control of her own hair (even when we do brush it, it’s never against her will).

    Of course I’d love if my daughter followed in my footsteps some day and ended up with dreads :) But right now she’s very much into pretty hair accessories, and I’m ok with that.

    • Dulce

      I am so glad that you guys have found a solution. I have similar memories of tears and anger, and I am so happy that our daughters’ memories will be happier!

  17. Leah

    I like the thoughts here, though I am on the fence. I didn’t like hair brushing as a little kid. But then, in preschool, we had a “class” where a beautician came in and showed us how to brush hair. She let us use hair models to practice brushing, starting from the bottom and working our way up. I learned how to brush my own hair, and I found I liked that much better.

    I can think of one potential safety issue, though it’s really only a problem if hair doesn’t get washed and gets too matted. You can get bed-sore like lesions on your scalp from sweatiness and hair. If air circulation isn’t getting to the scalp properly (and if the scalp doesn’t get some sort of stimulation, like a head massage occasionally, or washing), these sores can develop. The sores could get infected. This is obviously a worst-case scenario, but it is a good case to use for maintaining a minimum level of hygiene.

    • Dulce

      Thankfully, my daughter loves to have her hair washed. She just doesn’t like the brushing. I have tried to show her how to brush that way, but she still hates it. I am definitely not a beautician, though! I think it is cool that you were able to see a professional and learn from her as a child! I think my younger daughter would love to practice like that, but I am not sure who she could practice on. My hair is curly, so brushing just makes it impossible for me to get through a doorway without turning sideways. ;)

  18. Kerry @ City Kids Homeschooling

    This is a really great post, and a good reminder for me and my hair-brushing-resistant five-year-old that this isn’t a battle that needs to be fought….

    • Dulce

      Thanks, Kerry! It is so hard to remember that we are allies, not opponents, sometimes and so easy to just lockdown into a win-at-all-costs mode. I am always so encouraged to hear of more peaceful families like yours!

  19. L

    I too love the Curly Girl method and Deva Hair products:) I have loose curls and though hair straighteners back when I was in HS were and still are all the rage, I let my hair’s natural texture shine. I get a couple of haircuts a year to take off what few split ends I have and give it shape, but otherwise wash and wear, which no isn’t washing but no-poo’ing with conditioner. You all should check out “The Curly Girl Handbook” by Lorriane Massey. BTW the racial issues surrounding curly/”messy” hair vs. “straight” hair are immense. I really believe a lot of the disdain for textured hair is internalized racism. While I firmly believe in presenting yourself at your best and caring for yourself so that your hair and everything else is healthy, fighting against it’s natural look is insanity.

    • Dulce

      Thank you, L! I want to try that. I used to think her hair was pretty straight, but I have been surprised by how much curl pops out when she gets plenty of conditioner. And I think your point about racism is so important. Do you have any posts on that? I know from talking with friends it is a very real issue for so many.

  20. Megan  

    DD doesn’t have much hair yet, but this applies to so many other things…like how she doesn’t want to change out of her PJ top. I completely agree with your approach. Kudos, Mama!

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