Tattoos are more popular than ever, so how should parents respond to a child who wants one?
“Mom, Dad – I want a tattoo!” These words, often spoken in the demanding tone reminiscent of a much earlier developmental period, confront and bedevil many parents. Although within the culture at large there is fascination with what is now called “body art,” many readers here believe that tattoos lead to nothing good, and may even represent a gateway to shady characters and immoral activities.
For parents born from 1960-80, tattoos represent two things: soldiers returning from war, or inmates in the kind of prisons much more serious than the local county jail. We know how the ink degrades and diffuses over time, spreading into areas of skin not originally treated. Risks of hepatitis, bacterial infections, and even MRSA are valid concerns. The most common subjects of “tattoo art” include references to drugs, Satan, new age concepts, and other things too awful to speak of. There are religious tattoos, but somehow Our Savior or Our Lady of Guadalupe looks irreverent on the back of a neck or forearm.
Perhaps one ineffective way of dealing with an adolescent's whiny demand for the needle and ink is to respond immediately and emotionally with “No way” or “Over my dead body.” This often sets the stage for a battleground with both people drawing lines in the sand. Our stance may represent our duty to our children, and our concern for them, but strategizing about our response rather than shooting from the hip can be more effective.
Be pro-active and initiate the discussion of tattoos before the teen does, in a matter-of-fact tone rather than an ultimatum: “Did you see in the paper that our state legislators voted to make it illegal for anyone under 18 to get a tattoo? Now in our state, kids can't even get one with parent permission. I wonder why the legislators did that?” Or: “I saw an elderly lady today with a tattoo on her arm. She was trying to cover it up because the ink had spread everywhere. It sure did clash with the pretty sweater she was wearing." When there is an ongoing discussion about perilous topics like tattoos, the parent has a better opportunity to communicate in a calm and factual manner and the teen has more opportunities to listen.
Parents who have a spirited and free-wheeling style of communicating might, in some cases, comment in a way similar to: “I saw someone with a Walt Disney tattoo today. Surely Skar or Simba would have been a better choice than Miley Cyrus.” Or: “Did you hear the President say he will get the same tattoo as his daughters if they decide to choose to get one? What do you think of that?” This approach won't work for everyone.
What does the Catholic faith teach about tattoos? If you look in the subject index of the Catechism, you will see that “Tax Evasion” follows “Tabernacle.” The extremely thorough section on the Ten Commandments does not address this issue. Yet deep down, we know it’s not right for teens to be doing this. Communicating that “the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit” in your own language will reach the heart of some youngsters. Sadly, well-meaning parents might hear a response along the lines of “it’s my body and I’ll do what I want with it.” (Back to the drawing board…)
Each state has different laws concerning tattoos. Many now have chosen to restrict them to persons 18 and older, regardless of parental permission. You may discover that in your locale, the law is on your side. In many cases, this knowledge is enough to settle the topic. For others, one will still have to worry about illegal means – after all, teens know how to get to other substances and activities not approved by the adult world.
Consideration on the topic of tattoos may lead to a reflection on other activities common to pre-adult life. Are tattoos more dangerous than football concussions? Witness the ambulance always lined up past the end zone in high school football games. Or the state trooper at the entrance to the school, keeping post from 7 till 3, and even later. Or prom parties with drinking and, worst of all, drinking and driving. Thinking about these may help put tattoos in perspective.
What do you think? Have you discovered an effective way of broaching or responding to this topic? Have you learned what not to say? What aspects of the faith offer encouragement or guidance?