02/12/2014 02:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Unbroken: What I Learned Doing My Daughter's Hair

When I was a boy, I had glossy hair cut into straight-across bangs intended to mimic the look of Dorothy Hamill, a figure skater I adored. Though I'm mixed-ethnicity Cuban-American, my hair seemed genetically more Mayflower than raft-by-night. No matter what inglorious style I tried, from mullet and to nape-length shag, I could count on tresses that were silky, shiny, and easy to manage.

My daughter's hair, beautiful though it may be, is none of those things. Her locks are curly, thirsty and stubbornly willful. They are so different than my own, so foreign to the experience I grew up with, that they have required me to undertake a rigorous course of self-education. In the eight years since she was born, I have watched YouTube clips, read countless articles, scoured online forums designed for parents of children of color, visited urban salons, talked to other moms and dads in the detangling trenches and just about earned my PHD (Pretty Hair Degree).

Though I still can't do a full set of cornrows as flawlessly tight as a salon might, I'm no longer afraid to do all-over braids, and when my daughter makes a request -- from a simple up-twist to a Rihanna-style faux Mohawk -- I'm on it. Like girls of color everywhere, she knows it may take literal hours, but since we've been doing this process as long as she can remember, she just settles in and lets me get to work. Literally in my hands in these sessions, she trusts I will do the right thing.

At "hair time," she sits on a small woven chair, wrapped in a cozy blanket, and I sit behind her on the edge of the couch, my legs on either side of her, so that we are a little unit, facing the same way like captain and first mate on the bridge of a ship. It is a time that I cherish, and it has taught me a crucial lesson about parenting: When you force it, you lose.

One of the first warnings you get as you learn about caring for natural hair is that if you stubbornly force a comb through a tangle, you are very likely to break the hair completely off, perhaps by the handful. To avoid this, you start near the ends and comb downward, then repeat the same step but from a point closer to the scalp, not actually combing down from the roots until you've already cleared the path. This can be time-consuming, but it's a good bit wiser than simply trusting willpower and brute strength to forge a path through living knots. The alternative to the gentler path is to risk precious growth being lost.

My daughter's hair seems destined to curl infinitely inward instead of extending in length. In all her life, she's had a few trims to clean up damaged ends but never a full haircut; even so, her hair does not yet reach her shoulders as she dreams of it someday doing. To lose a handful of it now because I'm not careful would be incredibly upsetting to her, so I'd never risk just tugging through a snarl in my hurry or frustration. When it's hair time, I can be as patient as a proverbial saint.

The trick is in trying to mirror this lesson the rest of the time, especially in moments of conflict. Whether it's arguing about her unfinished homework, or shouting over her when she's misbehaving, or even discounting emotions that seem illogical to me, I can sometimes fall into the kind of lazy parenting behaviors that do little except force my will onto my daughter. And yet she has shown me amply that these approaches don't lead to the desired outcome at all. Rather, they are more likely to shut her down.

The better wisdom is aiming for the grace to approach a struggle more calmly, pausing to discern the kinks in the situation before going any further. Maybe the tears about a bad playdate are actually just an add-on to a day in which she keenly misses her birth mother. Perhaps the anger over her chores sits atop a reservoir of worry about math tests. Often, finding the true source of the snarl and working on that is the one thing that allows me to smooth things out.

This requires patience I don't always manifest. But I'm trying, as there is a related lesson to be learned from her favorite and most time-consuming hairdos: patience equals possibility. The more I can teach myself to deal with knotty emotions slowly and tenderly, employing all that I've learned so far, the more likely the result will be something beautiful -- and not something broken.