Will Someone Please Tell Me the Right Way to Cut My Son’s Curly Hair?
Banish bad haircuts with these pro pointers.
Ever since a stylist left my 1-year-old son looking like a chia pet during his first-ever haircut, I've trimmed his curly locks myself. While I'm no stylist, welding scissors gives me a sense of control and leaves ~$40 in my pocket every time my kid's bedhead needs a little more than a comb to be tamed.
To be honest, my work isn't always much better than that fateful pro's because, despite creative callings, I'm a writer, not a barber. That said, I do have a will to learn! It's just that YouTube isn't exactly rife with great advice: While there are plenty of moms-turned-hairstylists-turned-video-tutorialists, I've found out the hard way that the best directions sometimes lead to the worst haircuts — disappointing, since you often have to watch the e-n-t-i-r-e video for a peek at the results. (It's like they want moms to pay for beauty school!)
All of this is to say that I need some help in the styling department, particularly now that my 3-year-old's effortlessly soft baby ringlets have been replaced by a thick and frizzy, straight(ish?) mop of hair that's consistently stubborn as hell. Lest I surrender my scissors (or risk divorce from my husband, who never thinks our kid needs a haircut and has thus become my worst critic), I reached out to Cozy Friedman, founder of Cozy's Cuts for Kids in Manhattan and licensed barber with 30 years of experience in the kids' salon business for some much-needed tips.
The Basics of Home Hair Cutting
My first question for Friedman: Literally, where do I begin? (Disclosure: I live in an apartment without a backyard.) "People always say you should cut kids' hair in the bathtub because it's easier to clean up, but I can't think of a worse place," she says, citing the potential for slips and inability to get close to — let alone control the movements of — your child. "Kids are literally moving targets."
Her preferred approach for home cuts is simple and sounds a lot saner: Cut open a trash bag to create a disposable floor cover that you can later roll up to contain cut hair and toss, then seat your child in the center of it.
Once you've got your location down pat, it's time to get the rest of your sh*t together: Considering the average child's abbreviated attention span, "you need to be organized with a game plan and understanding of what you're going to do, from start to finish," Friedman says. That means setting out everything from your tools to their toys, since they'll definitely need a distraction. (Might I recommend garbage truck videos on YouTube?)
Your arsenal should include a comb, duckbill hair clips, and scissors specifically designated for haircutting — not kitchen scissors, which aren't as sharp. For shorter cuts, Friedman says an electric buzzer isn't just faster and easier to use, it's safer since it's less sharp than scissors. The only downside? The sound can agitate certain children, so pick your poison!
Quick note for newbies: Buzzers come with guards, or little combs that create distance between the clipper and the head so you don't completely scalp your child. The lower the number, the closer the clipper comes to the head and the shorter the haircut will be. Many basic shorter cuts involve using one number on the top — say, 3 — and a smaller number — i.e., 2 — on the sides, then blending along the edge where the top meets the sides. But more on that later.
How to Cut Short Curly Hair
The good thing about curly hair is that it's more forgiving than straight hair, which tends to show imperfections. Here is a rough outline of how she'd direct a novice to cut the mane of a kid like mine.
Select your style.
"The cutting approach should vary by hair type, age, and style," Friedman says, making it clear why I couldn't find a fail-proof, universal tutorial on the interwebs. Starting with a ~vision~ that's appropriate for, say, coarse curls can help you keep your eye on the prize — it's like looking at the picture on the box while assembling a puzzle.
Knots can seriously throw a wrench into the plan when cutting a curly-haired kid, Friedman points out. If you plan to cut wet hair, which makes it easier to cut with precision, detangle it right before the trim. However, curls "shrink" when wet, making it hard to get exactly the length you want. So, you may plan to cut dry hair. In this case, just do a thorough comb out after bathtime so you don't have to run a comb through your kid's dry curls right before their cut.
In terms of timing your cut around bath time, anything but damp hair goes: "Wet gives you precision on length, and dry gives you precision on curls, but if you go damp, you lose out on all of the advantages," she says.
Divide and conquer.
Use your comb to split the hair down the back middle vertically, then horizontally until you have at least four quadrants. Some stylists start with a mohawk-like section that runs from the forehead to the nape of the neck. The more sections, the longer your cut will take — but it will be cleaner, which can reduce the time you need later to even out your work. ("I'm all about organization on a haircut," Friedman says.)
Cut one section at a time, bottom first.
Use a clip to keep the top sections out of the way and cut the bottom first. (These first cut pieces will serve as a guide for how much to cut on top to keep things even.)
When freestyling, hold the comb and/or scissors in your dominant hand and the strand you want to cut in your non-dominant hand between your pointer and middle finger, held parallel to the ground. Meanwhile, use your remaining fingers as a sort of ruler to measure how far away from the head to make each cut. (Ideally, you'll keep things uniform—a skill it takes professionals a hot sec to perfect.)
If you're using a clipper, the whole process will go faster. First, you'll select your guard(s). Remember, the same number all around will give you a buzz cut. Many simple styles call for a longer number on top, one shorter on the sides and in the back.
The internet says to trim in the direction the hair grows. Usually, this means you should move the buzzer from the bottom of the neck up to the crown of the head in long, slow strokes, leaning the guard gently against the head. Tip: If your kid has a cowlick — a circle of hair that seems to perpetually stick up due to the direction of hair growth — "be careful not to cut it too short," Friedman says. "Letting it grow longer will help it lie down, but you can use whatever product works, like a pomade, gel, or cream, to calm it down in the meantime."
Blend the top into the sides.
Because using different number guards (or different lengths, if you're cutting with scissors) on the top and sides of the head can create a stark contrast where sections meet, you'll want to "blend" them, which can, admittedly, be tricky. With a buzzer, you'll use the shorter guard and your wrist to make a scooping motion upward, which puts a little more space between the clipper and the scalp. If you're using a number 2 guard on the sides and a 3 on the top, think of the blended area as a 2.5. The same sort of math can be applied to freestyling: You want to achieve a length that falls somewhere between the longest and shortest sections.
Trim the bangs.
"The bangs are the most important part of the entire haircut," Friedman says. "They set the tone for the haircut." (No pressure!) Because a common pitfall is not accounting for curl shrinkage, her rule of thumb is to exercise restraint and cut less than you think you need to — you can always trim more later. Another mistake she sees too frequently is cutting bangs too wide, so they extend too far back forward the crown of the head. "Use the top of the ear as a guide for bang length and edges of the eyebrows as a guide for bang width," she suggests.
If you want, you can also soften the edges of the bangs by holding the scissor parallel to the strands and snipping straight up. But this is, like, varsity level.
Reveal those cute lil' ears!
Using a scissor or buzzer with no guard, trim the hair around the ear to frame the itty bitty auditory appendages. Look out for squirmers. (I always try to protect the ear with my non-dominant hand, and my kid still has both of his!)
Taper the back.
Tapering is similar to blending in that it creates a gradual hairline between the back of the head and the neck where there is no hair at all, Friedman explains. When buzzing the neck, use the bottom of the ears to guide where the hair should end and the neck should begin. Keep the bottom of the hairline level using scissors to cut straight across. Or you can use your comb as a ruler when using the buzzer; no guard needed.
Check your work.
Working methodically around the head, make sure there are no uncut pieces. (Chances are, there will be many, especially for kids who squirm throughout their styling sessions—grr!) Snip as needed.
Stop when you're done.
Resist the urge to touch up your work every time you see your kid. (I'm guilty of this — I've been known to chase my child from breakfast table to bathtub with my scissors and dustbuster.) "Like an artist who doesn't know when the painting is done, it could never be done," she warns. So, put down the scissors and step away from the child!
Give yourself a break!
Cutting your kid's hair can stir up all kinds of feels, regardless of who's holding the scissors. "People are emotional about hair and emotional about their kids," she says — and, boy, has she seen tears streaming down parents' faces in her salon. "When you put them together, it's a very powerful combination of emotions, especially when you see your child go from a little baby to a big boy," she acknowledges. "But the truth is, hair grows back and gets shaggy all over again."
Sadly, one exception to the "hair grows back" rule involves baby curls: "A lot of parents worry that cutting their kid's curls will make them disappear forever," Friedman says. "If a child's hair is curly or wavy and it's growing in straight on top, when you cut the curl, it's going to be gone," she warns. (I'm not crying. YOU ARE!)
When to Go Pro
If you can develop a haircutting technique that works for your kid and doesn't leave you wading through rogue strands of hair until you pay off your mortgage, great! But know that (a) this takes time to master, and (b) there may come a day when your child would like to take their hair into their own hands... and out of yours, Friedman warns.
When her sons went to sleepaway camp and showed up on visiting day with previously forbidden buzz cuts, courtesy of the camp barber, "they felt so confident that I realized it's not a bad thing to give up a little control," she says. "Sometimes, it takes creating a relationship with a stylist to help them show off who they are."
When my son turns 18, he can have any hairstyle he wants. Until then, wish me (and him) luck!