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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

What tattoos and piercings reveal about parents

High school students being dropped off at school.

High school students being dropped off at school. Credit: iStock

'If my daughter ever got a tattoo like that, I'd kick her out," one of my dining companions told me recently, gesturing at a waitress who boasted a fair amount of visible ink. "Same for all those piercings."

And it struck me: I've never heard anybody say, "If I ever hear my kid use a racial slur, they'll be on the street." I've never heard anybody say, "If I ever saw my kid bully someone fat or unpopular, their crap would be out at the curb by sundown." I've never heard a parent threaten to cut his or her kids out of the warm bosom of family for being mean or snobby or disrespectful or rude to waiters or uncharitable or, really, anything consequential.

It's always nonsense that's superficial, but highly public.

To be fair, practically nobody actually kicks his or her kids out, no matter what the little parasites do. These proclamations are superstitious, meant to ward off behaviors parents fear, and they are threats meant to ward off teen and young adult rebellion. When the rebellious behavior crops up, the last thing most parents do with these floundering kids is cut them off. We're actually more likely, at that point, to throw the helicopter parenting and enabling into a higher gear.

My dinner companion, for example, was talking about his twin 3-year-old girls, who have him wrapped around their fingers like Play-Doh. He won't kick them out of the house 15 years from now if they glue him to the Barcalounger and set his leg hair on fire. But he issues these proclamations, and always about behaviors that don't matter much and are becoming so common that bleating about them makes us sound like our grandparents screeching about Elvis and the depravity of hip-gyrating rock and roll.

A 2010 Pew Research Center poll showed that 20 percent of all Americans and almost 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 40 have tattoos. That means these young people are about twice as likely to have tattoos as they are to have voted in the 2014 election.

For young adults, voting in midterm elections is now twice as deviant as having tattoos. Make of it what you will.

When I was young, I heard people say they'd kick their kids out of the house for bringing home a black boyfriend or girlfriend, for growing hair long (boys) or shaving it off (girls), for getting caught smoking pot, for being gay or liberal (or conservative) or for, yes, listening to that devil worshipping music (Black Sabbath, Mötley Crüe, etc.).

Again, never for anything I see as important or real or, really, related to morality.

My daughter has heard other parents make these proclamations, and she's heard me say, "There's almost nothing that could make me kick my daughter out or sever our relationship. And the few things that could (murder, constant stealing, utter hatefulness) don't involve appearance."

I don't want her to punch holes in or draw on her body too much, but I don't care about that nearly as much as I care about her. I also don't want to provide really obvious markers that say, "If you want to make me furious, do this." I'd rather keep her guessing at how to go about it.

What strikes me is that the piercings and ink parents fear most are the ones that are very noticeable to others. Because they can be interpreted to scream, "My parents screwed up and now look at me," just as, in the past, canoodling with a paramour of another race or the same sex could. The idea that parents sound off more about how their kids are decorated than how they are as people leads to a disturbing conclusion: Those parents are more concerned with having others think they raised great kids than they are with actually raising great kids.

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.