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Is your child this happy with their curls?

Paula B.'s baby is only two years old and she's already getting messages about what constitutes "good" and "bad" hair.

Kinky hair in its natural state is bad, according to many members of Paula's family. Looser curls are good. And relaxed hair is great.

"My mother-in-law keeps talking about the relaxer that my daughter supposedly is going to 'need' when she gets in school," Paula says. "I have a lot of misgivings about what's to come. I'm afraid she'll get pressure from people who aren't comfortable with the way texture looks."

Curl-phobia is prevalent in many families where children receive negative messages early on about their curls and kinks from aunts, grandmothers and other relatives.

"This is often the case with people who are brainwashed to think that straight is the only beautiful picture they want to see," says stylist Diane Da Costa, author of "Textured Tresses." "They may not like curly because they feel it is unmanageable and wild -- something that needs taming."

In some cases, their curl-phobia may stem from their own negative experiences growing up with curly or kinky hair. With other people, it may be a lack of experience with curly hair and how to care for it.

"My mother-in-law is always telling my husband that my daughter's hair is a mess, and that we never run a brush through it," says one Texas mother, whose husband's family has no curly-headed members. "I think her hair freaks my mother-in-law out."

In many black families, the issue may be cultural.

"It's such a sensitive issue," Paula says.

Women are taught from an early age that hair in its natural state is not acceptable. They often get their first perm before they're out of elementary school, and never discover their natural texture until later in life.

"It really starts almost before a child is born," says Paula. "People will speculate about what type of hair the child will be born with. People are afraid of what they're not used to."

"When children and parents share attributes, such as curly hair, the child identifies with the parent's self-perception as well as the attitude of the spouse about the attribute," says child psychologist Dr. Mary Lamia of "Kid Talk with Dr. Mary" on Radio Disney.

"Thus, a child's self-image can include each parent's attitudes concerning his or her own characteristics as well as judgments about the partner's attributes," Lamia says. "For example, if Dad laments his curly hair or if Mom teases Dad about it, the result in either case might be a negative effect upon the self-perception of their curly headed child."

Cozy Friedman of Cozy's Cuts for Kids in New York says she has had a lot of experience with moms who are afraid of their children's curls -- especially mothers of bi-racial children whose own hair is straight.

"The intimidation stems from the fact that parents with straight hair don't know how to deal with curly hair, so the answer is that they need to learn!" Friedman says "The key here is education and practice. It definitely takes a little time investment up front. Once you take the big mystery out of it and embrace the curls, the phobia disappears."

Friedman recommends that parents learn from a pro. Find a stylist who is well-versed in curls and ask her to teach you how to work with the curls, she says. Maybe set up an appointment to take lessons. He or she can show you different styling techniques and recommend the right products.

"The right stylist will love to help you," she says. "We do this quite often at my shops, and parents rave about how it has changed their lives!"

It can also be helpful to buy books about the proper care of curly and kinky hair, such as Lorraine Massey's "Curly Girl" and Da Costa's "Textured Tresses."

Da Costa suggests tearing out pictures from magazines of models with curly and kinky hair, as well as of celebrities who have wavy, curly and kinky hair. "People need visuals!" she says.

New York stylist Rodney Cutler says he has worked with parents who want a certain look for their child, even if it goes against their hair's natural texture.

"They want to spend a lot of time on their kid's hair," says Cutler, who has two curly sons. "I'm really to the left of that. I think kids look best when they're themselves."

You have to know how to speak to your kids about their hair, says New York curl stylist Ouidad.

"I see mothers come in exasperated, throwing their hands up in the air and asking what to do with their child's hair," Ouidad says.

She often asks parents to sit in the waiting room so she can work with the child alone.

Children's book author Natasha Anastasia Tarpley, who wrote "I Love My Hair!" believes family members need to be sensitive to how their comments can affect a child.

"If someone is constantly fussing with your hair, or telling you to 'fix' this or that about yourself, you're going to believe there's something wrong with the way you are," Tarpley says. "We need to be conscious and vigilant about the messages we send our children, which means that we need to be conscious of our own beliefs and views of self."

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