She made crooked parts, lumpy barrette hair and pitiful ponytails.
When she put 4-year-old Maya's tresses in braids, she had to redo it every day.
But now she knows the truth: Lots of moms and dads of black and biracial girls are thumb-tied.
"The tradition of how to do hair has skipped a generation," says Collison,a pre-school teacher. "There's no one around to help us untangle this hair stuff."
Collison is author of "It's All Good Hair: The Guide to Styling Black Children's Hair" (Amistad Press, $12.95.) In it, she contends that the ability to do home-style hairstyles is a fading skill.
Why? More moms work. More dads (who may not even know how to twist a rubber band) have custody. More sure-fingered aunties and grandmothers live far away.
In addition, more cross-race adoptions and more biracial families mean more little girls have different hair types than their mothers.
And here's the big one: Little girls want fancy hair like the stars on TV, not two pigtails like their mothers had growing up.
A pretty mess
"When I was a child, my mother did my hair every day. Now my daughter is always looking at books and asking, 'Mommy, can you give me that hairstyle?' I can do French braids, but only the fat ones," says Kimberly Whitsett, 36, of Detroit, the mother of Erinn, 6.
Because the black community is pretty unforgiving of untidy or short hair on little girls, Collison says, klutzy parents are over a barrel. Your kid has messy hair? No one will say anything to the child; they'll just feel sorry for you.
"They'll think, this is a busy professional mom or a white parent, and will delicately try to suggest ways to help," says Collison.
In her book, she relates a story of a white mom of a black daughter who followed another mother around in the CVS drugstore for help. The care of kinky African-American hair is so different than care of Caucasian hair that many white mothers have no clue how to properly take care of it -- washing it only once a week and cutting it sparingly, if at all.
But white moms aren't the only ones with trouble. Collison had to buy a $12 hairstyling mannequin just to teach herself basic braiding.
"We are at a time where you see a lot of people walking around with natural hairstyles like locks and twists, but still a large portion of the community doesn't approve of that," she says. "You should do what ever it takes to make your child feel comfortable."
And that may cost money.
Undoing the damage
With her 3-inch-long red fingernails a blur of motion, Regina Porter can press and elaborately basket-weave a girl's hair faster than most moms can snap a barrette. Her tools? A jar of yellow Ultra Sheen Satin Press and a sizzling hot Elite pressing comb.
No parent can work as fast or as efficiently as a hairdresser can, insists Porter, 46, owner of Kiddie Korner Salon in Oak Park. It specializes in girls' hair ages 3 to 16.
"Sometimes even a 2-year-old will sit quieter than an older girl," she says. She charges $30 per visit.
Porter says she spends a lot of time undoing damage parents have done to young girls' hair.
"A lot of mothers who don't know how to do hair, the first thing they think of is a perm. We get them in here when the hair breaks off. Or they put relaxing chemicals in it. They think that's the answer. Or they press it and it burns," she says, her own pressing comb steaming its way precisely through the hair of a very still Bobbi Mitchell, 16, of Detroit.
The atmosphere is already familiar to 6-year-old Marissa King of Detroit. She comes every two weeks.
"Before I came here my auntie would do my braids. It hurt my head," she says.
Today, Marissa waits her turn behind at least 10 other little girls in the stuffy room. Most sit politely with towels around their wet heads until one of the three stylists can make them beautiful.
The sight would pain Lisa Akbari, a Nashville, Tenn., specialist in black hair chemistry and author of "The Black Women's Guide to Beautiful Hair" (Sourcebooks, $12.95.)
She says that so many women have become "salon dependent" that they can't remember or never learned how to care for their own hair, much less a child's.
"This means that babies are being sent to the salon younger and younger," she writes.
But Bianca Turner, 11, says today's hairstyles are beyond the patience of most moms.
"My mother doesn't know how to do the hairstyles that are in," says Bianca, of Detroit. "When I was younger, she used to do the cutest little hairstyles. But they're not cute anymore."
Brittney Nelson, 15, likes a sophisticated updo called Twisties. No way could her mom do that. And don't even think about her dad.
"If my dad tried to do my hair, I don't know what would happen," says Brittney, of Detroit, grinning at the horrible thought. She does her own hair between salon visits.
Kiddie Korner stylist Katina Holmes says the do-it-yourself idea only works if a parent is skilled and has a LOT of time to spare.
"The same thing I can do in half and hour takes a parent two hours," she says, twisting Brittney's into a style that will last a week.
Collison would like to see a day when girls need not go to a salon twice a month like grown-up ladies. She'd like to see more natural hairstyles.
Even Kiddie Korner owner Porter concedes that parents should be able to learn basic styling techniques for little girls. It's not brain surgery.
"Moms who really don't know what to do use one ponytail," she says, now braiding Bobbi Mitchell's pressed hair into meticulously even segments. "Some do five ponytails, which is good, but only until age 12. After that, a lot of the older girls don't like the way mom combs it."
It's not easy getting beautified at any age.
"I usually sit still," says Erinn Whitsett, 6. "Sometimes I like to move my head a little. But when I move my head, they always say, 'stop moving!' "
OK, parents. Collison's book book assumes you know as little as she did about hairstyling. It explains how to wash (every one to two weeks), condition (lightly, please) and blow-dry hair at home (style each section as you blow-dry.)
The book has how-tos for various twists, cornrows, ponytails, Zulu knots and zigzag parts. Some look simple. Others are as daunting as jigsaw puzzles.
She explains hair -- straight, wavy, curly, kinky -- in all its variations.
She tells how to get a child to sit still while you do her hair.
And she encourages dads to learn, too.
"There is this whole generation of dads now who want to learn how to take care of their children's hair," says Collison, of Washington, D.C. "They really want to feel like they can do their child's hair -- or at least put it in a style so people won't be laughing at them."
And how is Collison doing with daughter Maya's hair?
"I do it myself now," Collison says. "And my daughter is much happier now that mom can do more hairstyles."