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'90s FAMILY : Sticking Point : When the latest rage includes a plethora of piercings and a ton of tattoos, where does a parent draw the line?

June 14, 1995|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Last year my nephew Billy Jon, then a fifth-grader in Santa Barbara, talked his mother into letting him get his ear pierced, something that would have been unheard of in a 10-year-old boy a few years ago. Even more shocking would have been the notion of his mother taking him to get it done. He did use an age-old strategy to get her permission, however: "I told her that lots of kids in my school had them, including even a couple of kindergartners--that was kind of an exaggeration."

Suky Worman, a teacher from Studio City, said son Daniel had his ear pierced when he was in the third grade. "I allowed him to do it," she said. "How could I argue with gender distinction? After all, I let my girls have them."

OK, we've now evolved to the point where an earring on a little boy seems acceptable. But what's happening these days with their not-much-older brothers and sisters can still elicit dread and horror from parents.

Body piercing and tattooing are no longer considered the outrageous markings of society's outsiders. With rock stars, actors and high-fashion models flaunting their tattoos, what was once thought of as unsavory is now acceptable--unless of course it's your own sweet, little innocent darling asking for one.

At the Gauntlet in Santa Monica, a body piercing chain with outlets in San Francisco, New York and Chicago, piercer Tasha Berg said, "We're seeing younger and younger kids coming in here wanting to do it."

"It" includes a plethora of piercings most parents shudder to think about, from lips, navels and nostrils to tongues, eyebrows and cheeks--even genitals.

Children and their parents have in recent years engaged in a ritual struggle over who is old enough to do what in matters of sex, drugs and autonomy. More and more, the kids seem to be winning.

But this particular trend poses new dilemmas for parents wanting to let their kids feel free to express themselves without what they view as permanent disfigurement.

Child psychologist Anthony Wolf, author of "Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall?" (The Noonday Press, 1991), makes the point that "tattoos and body piercings among teen-agers are a classic example of the need for teen-agers to feel that they are their own person--to define themselves as different from their parents. Parents should realize that adolescence is a stage. This is definitely a temporary period. The problem with tattoos, of course, is that they are going to last longer than this phase."

Sometimes it's a matter of the parents adjusting to the child's choices. Noah Stone, a musician from Los Angeles, said: "I wanted a tattoo when I was still living at home. . . . I kept saying to my mom and dad that I was going to do it, and they kept freaking out. When I finally did it, they had nothing more to freak out about. And the next thing I knew my mom was taking photos of it because she thought it was so cute."

Other parents have discovered that they actually like what their kids are doing. One of Worman's daughters has a belly button ring, while another wears a zirconium stud in her cheek.

"At first I was a little dismayed," Worman said. "Then I remembered I really loved the hippie aesthetic. This feels better to me--when it's not profoundly extreme--than acrylic nails and lacquered hair."

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Trying to set limits is probably where most parents find themselves. Deborah Brown, a computer programmer in Santa Barbara, said her sixth-grade daughter now has three holes in each ear. "But I've drawn the line there. The bottom line is she will have to live with it for the rest of her life."

In San Francisco, Heidi Howell's 11-year-old daughter, Lily, recently requested a nose ring. "I said 'absolutely not,' " Howell said. "But I did let her dye her hair blue."

Howell's older daughter, Jesse, is a sophomore in high school. While she's uninterested in piercings for herself, she appreciates the attitudes of acceptance and even respect that kids presently have for practices that were once considered unthinkable.

"Belly button piercings are the trendy thing at my school," Jesse said, "but tattoos are, like, spiritual. People who do them are really into art. It's nothing to do with violence."

One reason Jesse doesn't want her own belly button pierced is the length of time it took for a friend's to heal. "Her parents didn't know she had one. It was infected for like a year. It looked all gooey."

Berg, who works with eight other piercers at the Gauntlet, said that in the Los Angeles area, belly piercings are the most popular. And yes, they do take a long time to heal.

Berg said the Gauntlet limits its clientele to those 18 and older. "The absolute limit is 16--if they have a parent with them and if they both have IDs," she said.

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