Enlightened Living

Meaning and mindfulness in everyday life

Shaping and Motivating Behavior in Kids

Conscious Parenting: So, Your Kid Wants a Tattoo...

I was speaking with a friend of mine the other day when he excitedly stood up from the table, explaining that he wanted to show me his new "tat". He lifted a shirt sleeve to reveal a twining of thick, sharp lines that wound around his powerful bicep. He referred to the style as "tribal" and, although the artwork was quite stunning, I could only think to myself, "Uhm, what tribe?"

Body art has been a part of human culture for millennia. From the time of our cave-dwelling ancestors it has marked rank, position, transition, transformation and a host of other things. Its recent resurgence in popularity might be attributed to a wish to return to that simpler time; a time that was definitive and people knew where they stood. But that's a whole other conversation.

The rise in popularity of tattooing within the youth culture probably comes from a few different places. One, and the most obvious, is fashion. Tattoos, once reserved for bikers and bad girls, have become part of the cultural mainstream. Another, more subtle reason may be the need for kids to somehow mark a transition or rite of passage, real or imagined. There are so few left for youth today that this custom, which is undoubtedly part of the racial memory, has been, through a host of circumstances, revitalized.

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One of the main prerogatives of youth is to define itself, to set itself apart, to, as Jung said, individuate. Tattooing would seem to be the perfect vehicle for that. But here is where we confront one of those wonderful paradoxes of adolescence -- I am going to be just like everyone else so that I can be different. As parents and teachers it is important for us to understand where the seemingly random and arbitrary ideas and wishes of youth come from, hence the pre-amble. Remember, you used to be an adolescent once too and, at the time, Earth Shoes seemed to make perfect sense.

So, your kid wants a tattoo. And your response is, "No." What if it was, "Why?" or "Tell me about it." -- not because you will ultimately say "Yes", but so that you can understand the motivation. If the response is, "Because Janey has one..." or whatever, this is not the proper time to use the "If Janey jumped off a bridge..." strategy. It's a teachable moment. We can't change a child's behavior by punishing or restricting, but by understanding and motivating. If they know that you are actually listening, they will talk to you.

You cannot reason with a 15-year-old girl who is bound and determined to get a rose tattooed on her ankle. What you can do is talk to her about the permanency of her decision. Help her to realize that there are, as with every choice, consequences to her decision and she will have to be accountable to them for the rest of her life, because that tattoo will always be with her.

Kids don't have any real sense of time. They do not yet grasp that every turning in the road weaves another thread into the fabric of their lives. Most 15-year-old have a hard time grasping 30, never mind thinking about being 75 with a rose tattooed on their ankle. If you provide a child with perspective, they listen more attentively than you might expect. Shaping choices is often much more effective than forcing the "right choice" upon them.

© 2008 Michael J. Formica, All Rights ReservedMy Psychology Today Therapists ProfileMy WebsiteEmail Me DirectlyTelephone Consultations 

Michael J. Formica, M.S., M.A., Ed.M., is a psychotherapist, teacher and writer. He is an Initiate in the Shankya Yoga lineage of H.H. Sri Swami Rama and the Himalayan Masters.

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