One day your kid wants a new bike. The next day, a new cell phone. Before you know it, your little darling is as tall as you are, demanding pierced ears or even a tattoo.
Pierced ears, you say, what’s the big deal? In some cultures, girls get earrings as infants! But how do you feel about pierced ears for a boy? Or five holes in one ear for a girl?
As for tattoos, these statistics might surprise you: 22 percent of women and 26 percent of men said they had tattoos in a 2004 survey published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. The numbers are higher among young adults: Tattoos were reported by 36 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds and 40 percent of 26- to 40-year-olds in a Pew Research Center survey from 2006.
But among 41- to 65-year-olds — the demographic most likely to have teenage children — only 10 percent reported having tattoos.
So how do parents of teens, most of whom probably don’t have body art or untraditional piercings themselves, cope with kids who want nothing more than to look like LeBron James? Tattoos and earrings didn’t hurt his job prospects, so can you really argue that nobody will hire your child because of a flower on the shoulder or a stud in one ear?
Shelley Davis Mielock, who works with colleges and corporations on dress codes as part of her image-consulting business in Lansing, Mich., says parents should point out that tattoos and unusual piercings are still frowned upon in some industries and segments of corporate America. Disney employees, for example, are not permitted to have visible tattoos.
“At 17, 19 or 20, you don’t know what your future holds,” says Mielock. “I am not against tattoos or self-expression, but other people are going to form perceptions of you based on these things. I recommend if you’re going to get a tattoo, get it where you can cover it up.”
Mielock has two tattoos, but has not allowed her 17-year-old son to get one. “He argues that I am being a hypocrite, but this is a decision I made as an adult and I made it knowing the perception other people could have,” she says.
Parents should also research state laws. Some states prohibit minors from being tattooed altogether; others permit minors to get tattoos only if they have parental permission or if a parent is present.
You might also point out that tattoos are not as easily discarded as video games or out-of-style shoes. J. Kim Wright told her daughter, then 15 and living in Chapel Hill, N.C., that she could get a tattoo as soon as she wanted the same design for a whole year. “She wanted Betty Boop for a few months. Then Tweety. She is now 26 and has no tattoos,” says Wright.
Kathy Sussell, like many parents, made the argument that as long as her teenagers were dependent on her financially, they had to live by her rules. “It’s my house,” says Sussell, of Brooklyn, N.Y. “If they needed to get pierced or tattooed, they could find another place to live.” Her kids are now 20 and 23, “and I think they are happy today not to have tattoos.”
But aside from rational reasons — legalities, health, future careers — experts say it’s also OK for parents to simply set limits based on what matters to them.
“I am not a believer in giving in to all kids’ demands,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, a family psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, Calif. “You say that the rules and practices are different in every family, and until you’re 18 years old, it’s a bummer, but this is what our family believes.”
She adds that “nobody likes to be told what to do, or forced or over-controlled, so you need to say it clearly, but with empathy for how hard it is to be told what to do.”
Maggie Macaulay, a parent educator and parent coach who leads an organization called Redirecting Children’s Behavior in South Florida, also recommends setting reasonable limits while “side-stepping the power struggles when it comes to issues like this with teenagers. Make it a discussion so it isn’t laying down the law.”
You might ask your child why he or she is so interested in earrings or a tattoo. If you think you might agree to, say, pierced ears when the child is older, Macaulay recommends saying, “I am not ready for you to do that now,” while promising to reconsider in six months or a year.
Some parents have a more relaxed view. Dianne Sikel of Phoenix, Ariz., allowed her 7-year-old son to get his ear pierced. “He’s now 10 and rarely wears (an earring) but I don’t think it was a big deal,” she says. “It’s a tiny little hole.”
She feels a little differently about tattoos. She got one when she was 18, and now, at age 41, is considering getting it removed. “I don’t think tattoos are that big of a deal, but I am happy that he doesn’t have a permanent tattoo at 10,” she says. “Instead, we stock up on temporary tattoos like crazy.”
Susan Tordella of Ayer, Mass., doesn’t approve of tattoos, but three of her four children — now all young adults — have them. “If they want a tattoo or piercing, they’re going to find a way to do it eventually,” says Tordella, who writes a blog about parenting at RaisingAble.com.
She still thinks parents who are opposed to tattoos should let their kids know how they feel; withhold permission if they’re underage and hope that if they do get one, it’s “in an obscure place.” But she adds: “There are many worse things they can do to themselves besides piercings and tattoos — which are not fatal, self-destructive or addictive,” she said. “Don’t make it a big deal or power struggle. That will only make it more attractive.”