LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 12: Taraji P. Henson, wearing Schiaparelli, is seen as Neiman Marc...
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Taraji P. Henson Built A Salon Playground For Her Inner Child

“That salon is my safe space.”

Taraji P. Henson’s son, Marcel, is all grown up. A full-fledged adult. But the iconic actress, known for Empire and The Color Purple, still has a “playroom” in her house. No, it’s not because she’s pining for her son’s childhood or unwilling to let it go; this space is for Henson’s inner child. “You kill the little kid inside of you, you wither up and die,” she tells me by phone. “So I have a salon in my house, but it’s my playground. I’m not licensed in anything; I can’t do anybody’s hair or nails. But I have my mannequin heads and they love everything I do. They think I’m the world’s best hair stylist. That salon is my safe space.” Henson refers to that youthful, joyful part of herself as Little TJ. “My joy and hope lives inside of her.”

On June 18, Henson is sharing TJ’s voice with the world in her first children’s book You Can Be A Good Friend (No Matter What), beautifully illustrated by Paul Kellam, who snuck in a few Henson-esque Easter Eggs into the pictures. (Try to spot the main character’s mannequin head toy.)

Needless to say, the main character, a vivacious, joyful child named (you guessed it) TJ, is based in large part on Henson as a little girl. “I was magic,” she says. “I was an only child, so I lived in my imagination. When you’re an only child and your mother don’t have a lot of money, you have to have an imagination, baby.”


TJ on the page is similarly magical, and she just can’t wait for her first day of school. She’s especially excited to make new friends. But when a boy named Beau doesn’t take kindly to TJ’s over-the-top personality, her grandmother is there to give her advice on how to stand firm in herself and help Beau open up to becoming her friend.

“It’s teaching these children how to have empathy,” she says. “Because the first thing you want to do [when someone is unkind] is knuckle up, make him feel the pain he made you feel. But an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, so somebody has to choose love. Somebody has to teach the aggressor how to be nice and that’s going to be through love. And so this is the lesson in the book: Be yourself, be comfortable in your own skin. And when somebody tries to make you feel uncomfortable, don’t disappear. Because by being bold, by choosing joy, TJ is able to give that other kid some joy, too. ”

Of course, when dealing with bullies, it can be hard for children to choose joy. It’s even hard for parents to know exactly what to do in those situations. “Parents get stuck when their children are in pain,” she explains. “You just want to go to putting that cape on and sometimes you don’t have the tools, depending on what part of your own healing journey you’re in as a parent.”

That’s why Henson included a list of strategies for parents at the end of the picture book, with guidance to additional resources available through the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, a nonprofit she co-founded in honor of her father, which seeks to promote mental wellness and destigmatize mental illness in Black communities.

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She also has the benefit of hindsight when it comes to parenting young children. Marcel, the baby boy who crossed the stage with his mom at her Howard University graduation, recently turned 30. Henson had advice for moms still in the thick of those little kid years. “The most important thing is listening,” she says. “You have to listen to your children, with the intention of understanding. Because these kids are different, babe. These kids have something to say. They really do. And you just got to listen.”

Like many moms, Henson can look back on particular moments and “own up” to missteps and mistakes, and she tries to give herself some grace. “We’re not perfect and they don’t come with rule books,” she says simply. “You learn one day at a time.”

Right now, she’s leaning in to learning to care for the child that’s still, happily and thankfully, inside of her. “I’m healing and I’m taking care of my little TJ,” she says. “She has a voice and now she has a story and the world gets to meet her.”