Piercing Separation

While acceptance of a teenager's impulse to look shockingly different has a place, we don't want them to settle for a lonely statement. They deserve backing to communicate their sense of what's wrong in the world.

When my teenager said that he wanted to pierce his ear, I was cool. A pierced ear has an elegant look. When he started wearing only black, I was cool. He looks good in black. When he wanted to attach his wallet with a long dangling chain, I stayed cool. After all, women wear chains of this and that all the time. When he wanted to pierce his ears more times, I still stayed cool. Didn’t he have a right to his own fashion statement? When he started talking about piercing his lip, however, I came to the end of my cool. I thought it was disgusting, absolutely did not want him to do it, and didn’t have a clue what to do.

I knew what I felt, what I wanted. I knew what he felt, what he wanted. There was no overlap. We’d done enough things right in raising him that he was still listening. My husband and I might be able to talk him out of it, but we didn’t know what to say. Our overwhelming feeling of disgust didn’t seem like the basis of persuasive argument. Lacking a better strategy, we stalled.

Luckily, while the issue was in limbo, I spent some time with a young woman from Boston who has spent all her adult life advocating for the rights of young people. She has a passionate respect for teenagers and is dedicated to helping them find ways to express their full power and intelligence. She knows and likes my son, and in the course of updating her on his life, I mentioned my lip-piercing dilemma. She said, “Oh, I come across that all the time. I’ve counseled dozens of teenagers on these issues. I always urge them not to do it.”

Here was something new. I don’t know what I had expected--maybe a relaxed tolerance, an easy-going attitude of respect for this choice that I could use as a model, maybe a warm appreciation for the struggles of parents in our situation. But this was a new point of view. This was a smart woman’s thinking. And hearing it made me realize what had been missing in our interaction with our son--thinking. We were all doing great on the feeling end, but I don’t think any of us had surfaced one clear coherent thought.

I was eager to hear more. Why did she take this point of view? As I listened, the basic themes seemed to be power and connection. The young people she knew were smart. They saw lots of things they didn’t like in the world around them: conformity, numbness, lack of courage, deadened values. They wanted to take a stand for something different. Spiked and dyed hair, startling clothes, and body piercings were a way to do that. But not the most powerful or connected way, she argued. They have such good ideas, she said, they need to be interacting with people about those ideas. They need to be moving toward people with their thinking, not away from them with symbols of opposition. By settling for the symbols, they are selling themselves short. They are not acting with all their power--and the world needs that power.

I had been stuck in trying to figure out how liberal to be, how much to tolerate my child doing things I didn’t like. Now, perhaps, I could turn to thinking about what would be best for him, what would help him access the most of his love, creativity, intelligence and power, with this decision as just one of many. How could we invite him to articulate his thinking more? How could we encourage him to better see his power? (I also knew that I had to be relaxed about the possibility that he would still make choices that were hard for me to live with. I’ve been taking time with friends, imagining all the ways that bodies could be painfully pierced and decorated, joking and laughing at extreme possibilities and my attachment to “normalcy”.)

My husband, son and I finally had our first thinking conversation on the topic of lip piercing. We talked about power and separation. He listened carefully. I think he heard. We’re not done. But we’re in motion, and I trust the direction we are headed. Moving from the old frame of reference, based in values of individuality and tolerance, to a new one, where power, connection and thinking are central, we all may have more work to do, but it’s work that’s worth doing.