“Mommy, how old do you think I’ll have to be before I can get my ears pierced?” Seven-year-old Emmie’s voice mixed wistfulness with an early note of adolescent challenge–her specialty.
I was ready for this question. “If you’re ready to follow the instructions and take care of the piercings, you can do it now. I think you’re old enough.”
I explained how she would have to take care of her ears–assuming the instructions haven’t changed in almost forty years–and asked her if she was prepared to take on the responsibility. She promised that she was.
Secretly, I was delighted, because I’ve believed for a long time that Emmie will love having pierced ears. She’ll find it great fun to pick out earrings, match them with her clothes, maybe even learn to make them. These activities are all very much in line with her personality and her interests. But the notion of letting someone punch holes in her earlobes was something she had feared, and I waited for her to decide on her own that she wanted to leap that hurdle. (I also preferred that she be old enough to take on the responsibility of caring for her earlobes herself.)
Now, to her surprise, I and her father said yes to her request. She excitedly began to think about life with pierced ears. (She thought out loud, of course. Emmie always thinks out loud, and at length.) I promised her that as soon as I found a window in our crowded schedule, I would take her to get the job done.
But when the window opened, she balked. It turned out the fear wasn’t behind her after all.
No problem, I told her. I explained honestly that yes, it might hurt a tiny bit, but not even as much as the allergy shots she gets each week that don’t bother her, and this procedure would be over in a second. But if she wasn’t ready, that was okay. I told her to let me know when she was.
A few weeks later, she approached me again. “I’m ready now,” she said.
So a week-and-a-half later, I found another open Sunday afternoon. Emmie became sullen and curled into a corner of the couch, until I said, “Is this about getting your ears pierced today?”
I closed my eyes for a few seconds, trying not to feel like a yo-yo at the end of a string. I may have actually counted to five inside my head. “Honey, it’s okay. You don’t have to get your ears pierced. It’s your body. We’ll go when and if you’re ready. Okay?”
She nodded again, smiling this time. She bounced off the couch and ran to another room to play.
The yo-yo feeling did not subside, but I knew it would be unreasonable to demand a more decisive thought process from my seven-year-old daughter. (Also: have I met me? Hello?) More importantly, as the grown-up in this scenario, I realized there was a key value at play here, one for me to note and begin to teach to Emmie so she would understand it well by the time she is an adult.
Emmie may only be seven years old, but when we talk about piercing her ears, we are talking about her body. She can pierce her ears or not–that really doesn’t matter. It’s her body, and she gets to decide–with guidance from her parents until she’s grown. I may know she wants pierced ears. I may be certain she will love having them. But that doesn’t mean I should insist or cajole her into doing it.
One clarification: this important lesson doesn’t mean Emmie gets to make all decisions regarding her body, even with our guidance. She’s a kid, and she will for a long time need to follow parental rules; e.g., no tats. Why? Because we said so. Okay, really because she is far too young to understand the permanent nature of a bodily alteration like a tattoo. But also because we said so.
(Clearly, I’m rehearsing for the future.)
I didn’t plan to teach Emmie this particular life lesson when I sat down to ask if she was afraid to get her ears pierced. I didn’t know the words, “It’s your body” were going to come out of my mouth. But once our conversation was over and Emmie had skipped off to the playroom visibly less burdened than she had been moments earlier, I hoped I’d laid a stone in a foundation of empowerment on which my daughter will continue to build for the rest of her life.