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Should My 16-Year-Old Get a (Tiny) Tattoo?

Catherine Newman is the author of the memoirs Waiting for Birdy and Catastrophic Happiness, as well as the blog Ben and Birdy. She lives in Western Massachusetts with her partner and their son and daughter who have mysteriously become as...

'It’s clear that she cares about your opinion, so you saying yes is going to mean a lot to her'

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Welcome to Survivor, in which author Catherine Newman tries to answer your questions about adolescents and why they’re like that — and how to love them despite everything.

Have a question for Newman? Send it to her here.

Question: 

My 16-year-old wants to get a teeny-tiny tattoo (literally three dots in bi-pride colors on her wrist). Very subtle and easy to hide should she want to interview at Goldman Sachs some day. Also not some fleeting pop culture reference that will look dated before the ink even dries. She can legally get it with my written permission and in my presence. I'm leaning towards yes for the above reasons and because she'll be in college in just over a year at which point she's going to do what she wants anyway. I'm really glad she asked me instead of trying to go around me (and I've already told her this), but part of me wonders whether I'm thinking of saying yes just to seem like a cool mom. Obviously, I would thoroughly research the place/artist and do all that adult stuff before taking her. She'd also be paying for it herself. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Answer: 

[Please note: In addition to my own 14 and 17 this week, we’ve got special summer guests Nephew 14 and Nephew 17. Teen bonanza!]

Your question — or, I should more properly say, your awesome attitude — was met with great enthusiasm by all the teenagers. A sampling:

  • Nephew 14: "She gave all the reasons why it’s a great idea — and it sounds like a great idea!"
  • 14: "I love how there’s no suggestion that the daughter’s sexuality is just a phase. That’s really great."
  • Nephew 17, laughing: "She could always wear a wristband! But seriously, it’s clear that she cares about your opinion, so you saying yes is going to mean a lot to her."
  • 17: "It’s smart to let her. You don’t want to be the parent who stands in the way of their kid’s political thing."

Everyone agreed that it felt like a pretty low-stakes tattoo that could at best provide a lifetime of pleasure and pride or, at worst, be lasered off without a lot of fuss. Nephew 17 liked that “it’s something meaningful that she’s thought out. It’s not like she’s getting a big wave up her face.” Then there was much laughing about the tattoo she’s not getting. The one that says No Regerts, for example. (Doh!) Or the one we just saw in the movie Baby Driver — an adaptation of HATE, with the E covered up. (“Who doesn’t like hats?”)

I wondered only about your hesitation — why you’d consider whether the default should be no. I know you’re just checking. You’re the one that made a dozen good cases for the tattoo, so it’s clear you don’t believe you should deny this request. But sometimes I worry that we’re all stuck following these parenting scripts (“Don’t let your child get a tattoo”), where we’re supposed to react in some particular way or rather than tune into our actual kids and who they are, what they need in any given moment. “Go with your gut,” 14 said, which is always good advice. Michael wondered if you had a little of the residual sense from when we were teenagers ourselves that a tattoo marginalizes you, marks you as a crazy rebel, even though they’ve actually become so mainstream. Nephew 17 referred to this as "residual social stigma" because he goes to an international school and has an IQ of 10 million.

But Michael was also sympathetic to your hesitation in a way that made sense to me. "It’s the permanence that’s triggering," he said. "A lot of our job as parents is making sure we’re keeping our kids from doing irrevocable harm to themselves. A tattoo is irrevocable. It just happens not to be harmful." That’s right. Also, as my own mom said when I got a tattoo at 21, "But. But. You were perfect the way I made you!" That’s right — and maybe a tattoo represents a reclaiming of one’s own young body, apart from the parents who made it. "This is mine," she’s saying about herself.

Maybe next she’ll get a heart that says, "Mom," on it.

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