Teenagers and Tattoos

Do you remember what it was like to be a teenager? I didn’t think I did until I realized I was still stuck in one aspect of that part of my development way into my forties. The long-held belief I had carried forward was “How do I learn to be me without needing approval first?” 

My kids are often my best teachers as they bring me back to my own lessons on this school of earth over and again. In the last few weeks, one particular lesson has been giving me a knock upside the head!

When we were on vacation in Hawaii last month, my teenage son discovered that there was no age limit for getting a tattoo if he had parental approval. In California, where we currently reside, you have to be eighteen before you can get “inked.” Since I had a convenient law in place, there was no need to discuss this issue any further with him…until we went on that vacation. 

I suppose I could have said no to his request while in Hawaii. I am sure there are reasons for the age restriction in many states. I imagine it has to do with a teenager being developmentally prepared to make a decision that will impact them for the rest of their lives. How well does anyone know themselves at age fifteen to be able to choose a permanent marking for their body? It’s one thing to let a body piercing heal over later in life, but to erase off the ink is a whole other mess.

Then I thought about my friends and family, many of whom are very conservative in their views about body art. Coming from a traditional Catholic household, I used to fall into those ranks myself. I knew what their opinions were, so much so that I was mentally preparing myself should I get a call from Social Services upon return to California when the school system saw a tattoo on my son. 

My own battle for approval has been an internal war for most of my life.

Feelings of rejection from my own father were deeply rooted in my body. I remember trying to do all sorts of things to get his attention as a child without success. I was not particularly athletic, but I would constantly try to weasel in on games of catch he and my sister played in the backyard. There are other memories of chopping down trees with him for wood for our fireplace. I would have done anything to be close to him back in my youth. Not surprisingly, I even ended up at his alma mater for college, majoring in economics and accounting as a way of inching closer to his emotionally corded off persona. I hid my abortion and I stayed in my difficult marriage far too long because of not wanting to disappoint my father and having him think less of me.

I still remember telling my parents that I could not stayed married any longer. I was 43, almost 44 years old. My father suggested I “hang in there” for another ten years or so, until my kids were older and almost through college. It wasn’t until I announced my intention to divorce that I realized how much I needed and craved his approval. Had I not been spiritually dead, I might have endured, but by the time I told them I was done with the charade of my marriage, I knew there was no other hope for me but to leave.

Despite my father’s feelings, though, I did file for divorce. And one of the ways I marked my own freedom was to get “inked” myself on the first anniversary of my divorce. I knew neither my ex-husband or father would have approved of my new piece of body art, and somehow that made it even more compelling. It was a beginning for me in learning to break free of the ties that bound me my whole life. It might be considered a baby step for many, and others might have chosen a different avenue for self-expression, but for me, the new butterfly I sported on my left shoulder was exactly right.

I thought about my experience and where my son was in his life, and what I wanted to give to him as a parent. Do I want to teach my children not to do something because of what other people think? Isn’t the goal of parenting to teach them to make their own choices, follow their own hearts, and learn to fly, even if they sometimes flounder? My son and I talked about him getting a tattoo for several days. He was very clear on what he wanted. He was willing to do the reconnaissance to make sure he found a legitimate and hygienically safe establishment to do his tattoo. He was willing to pay for it and do all the things he needed to do to care for it afterwards. It was not a spontaneous decision, nor did either of us take it lightly. Our final step was to talk to the artist before making the final decision. 

He is not my oldest child. He was born less than two years after his world-traveling sister. While she has been away in Israel, I have seen him stepping up in a bigger way into his own life. I want him to continue to do that, with or without her presence. I know from my own experience that it’s a hard thing to do, to step into your true self without the need of approval from others. Despite their different genders, due to the closeness in their ages there has always been a bit of competition between them. When would he get a chance to do something “first?” When it got right down to it, knowing the level of his commitment as we went through the logistics, but feeling into his deep need for self-expression, how could I possibly say no to his request?

I have been learning this lesson my entire life. I don’t want that for my kids. If I do nothing else right as a parent but see them grow up to know their own hearts and live accordingly, I feel I will have succeeded as a parent. They will always have my support, but approval . . . none of us should go any deeper than our own hearts to get that much needed validation. I want my kids to enter the adult world feeling confident in their abilities, not incapable of making their own choices.

So… what was the end result? My son got his tattoo. He chose it and put it on his right foot, just below the ankle bone. It is the word LOVE, written in Arabic. Now he is symbolically rooted even deeper into the truth of who he is. And I love watching him become the courageous young man that both he and I want him to be. 


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