Parenting Traps

For keeps

Mom and Dad embrace a daughter’s tattoo.

By Jane Dornbusch
November 8, 2009

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At 18 years of age, your child can vote, join the military, be tried as an adult, and, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, get a tattoo. In the months leading up to my older daughter’s 18th, it was this last privilege -- if that’s the word -- that occupied her mind and dominated our conversation.

Abby had in fact been talking about getting a tattoo for years. Never gonna happen, I thought smugly. This is a kid whose fear of needles turns vaccinations into hysterical ordeals. But as her birthday drew closer, it became clear that she was determined to go through with it.

My husband and I weren’t thrilled, but having gotten tattooed at 17 myself (using a fake ID), I couldn’t credibly insist that it was unthinkable. And once she turned 18, pulling rank seemed neither right nor feasible. “Tell her you won’t pay for college if she does it,” more than one friend advised. But that didn’t fit in with our longtime parenting philosophies.

So we did the only thing we could do: We bought in. I didn’t find it all that objectionable, and why not be lenient about something I consider comparatively harmless? It gives me more credibility when I do put my foot down. Rather than turn a blind eye or attempt to forbid it, my husband located a reputable tattoo parlor, supervised the design (he’s a graphic artist), and accompanied Abby for the actual inking. Turning 18 may give a person the legal right, but it doesn’t automatically confer good judgment, and we wanted to be sure she was safe and ended up with something comparatively tasteful.

Turns out that, despite what the Commonwealth says, your opportunity to wield parental influence doesn’t end when your child turns 18. He or she may not be technically under your jurisdiction, but that doesn’t mean your job is finished. After the deed was done, Abby hugged her father and told him she’d always remember sharing this moment with him. OK, so it was a bonding experience outside a tattoo parlor, but now that she’s 18, we’re just happy we’re still bonding.

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