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The Surefire Way to Keep Your Teen From Getting a Tattoo

Nine years ago, a pre-Mother's Day conversation with my husband, Mark, went something like this:

Mark: So do you really want a tattoo?

Me: I guess so. I've been thinking about it for ages.

Mark: You guess so, or you actually want one?

Me: I guess I want one.

Well, guess what I got for Mother's Day that year? If there was any doubt about permanently having a Chinese dragon inked on my butt, it ended with the gift certificate for Ink Jam Tattoo signed with love from my two grade-school children.

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So there I was, on the cusp of joining the rapidly growing ranks of tattooed adults—and teenagers.

"When are you going to do it?" my daughter wanted to know.

"Um, soon," I told her.

"This week?" she pressed. "Can I go with you?"

"Will it hurt?" my son asked.

"You should get a butterfly."

As with most first-time tattoo stories, mine was fraught with meaning, dating back to when I was 16 years old and discovered I was born in the year of the dragon in Chinese astrology. I instantly felt connected to the magical creature Futs Lung, who holds a single white pearl of invincibility as he guards the hidden treasures of the underworld. When I was a girl left to defend myself against my distant, punishing parents, I called on that dragon as my sole protector. Whenever I felt powerless, I turned to my favorite mythical power animal and took flight.

What teenager in history has ever wanted to do what their mother does?

I still rely on Futs Lung when I need strength as a writer or as a mother, or when I parent my teenage son and try to remember how lost I felt at his age—so lost that I regularly relied on a dragon to save me.

Getting tattooed didn't hurt so much as it did sting—over and over for two hours. But as I lay on that table while Jim the tattoo artist created my body art in sharp needles, I endured the discomfort by becoming a dragon, by fearlessly flying to the underworld, where pain had no power against my scales.

My kids couldn't wait to see the results, although their reactions turned out to be more restrained than enthusiastic.

"Why is it so red?" my son asked.

My daughter sighed. "I was hoping you'd change your mind and get a butterfly."

"Do you like it?" I asked Mark.

"Do you like it?" he responded.

I did like it. With time I have even come to love my dragon tat that is now as much a part of me as the small frown of a scar on my thigh from when I burnt my leg on the tail pipe of a boyfriend's sports car. I now have two artful war wounds of sorts.

But my tattoo has served another purpose that I never anticipated until my kids became teenagers: Because I got a tattoo, my teenage son and daughter absolutely, resolutely, unequivocally don't ever want to get one. Tattoos, in their experience, are for mothers. And what teenager in history has ever wanted to do what their mother does?

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OK, I realized there are plenty of exceptions to that "rule"; and I know mothers and daughters and fathers and sons who have gotten inked together. But that won't be our family.

I've overheard my kids' friends talking about the day they turn 18 and can legally get a tattoo. And I've heard my children go silent on the subject. Or maybe pipe in with something like this, "My mom has a tattoo. I don't want one."

So it is that Futs Lung has once served as my protector, this time in the most unexpected of ways: by keeping my teenagers' skin safe from the host of problems that tattoos can cause. And by giving me one less thing to worry about.

Image via Twenty20/Kristy Lee

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