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At 8, Kari wants her tender earlobes pierced


When I was 11, my mother succumbed to my plea for pierced ears. She took me to the local department store, where someone zapped my earlobes with what looked suspiciously like a staple gun. My mom, who went shopping while I stood in line, returned to find me sitting with my head between my knees, woozy from the combination of hot fluorescent lights, the smell of rubbing alcohol and the sting of the newly punctured holes.

This rite of passage, now that I look back, was my first tentative step across the threshold of adolescence. Now I’m on the other end of the pointy gold stud. My third-grade daughter began feeling me out about ear piercing about a year ago. At first I searched my soul for a good solid reason to say no. I finally blurted, “You can get your ears pierced when you’re 10.” Despite her protests that 10 was so far away, two whole years -- which of course, according to quantum childhood theory, is in fact experienced as exponentially longer than two years is to, say, a 39-year-old -- I stood firm.

The topic becomes temporarily moot until another of her friends appears at school self-consciously pushing her hair behind her ears hoping someone will catch a glimpse of brand-new tiny studs bedecking tender little earlobes. Then Kari will come home and issue a predictable, if impassioned, plea for clemency on the earring moratorium: “But Mom, all my friends have their ears pierced.”

Kari’s one-girl exploratory committee for early ear piercing coincides with my realization that she is starting to show some of the preliminary signs of puberty that I might prefer to ignore for a few more years, but by then it’ll be too late. Kari isn’t alone; Time and the New York Times Magazine each recently reported on the phenomenon of early-onset puberty (about my daughter’s age, 8, or even earlier in some cases) among some American girls. Theories range from fat-laden diets to the hormones in cow’s milk to the increasing tendency for girls to live in households that include adult men other than their biological fathers, not to mention the oversexualization of mainstream culture.

Now, it’s true, many of her friends are getting their ears pierced. And there is no doubt she is growing up -- wearing her brother’s hand-me-down jeans will no longer do. Some days she barely brushes her hair. Others she locks herself in the bathroom with hair spray and accoutrements, emerging looking like a teen queen. She is becoming conscious of brands and stores. The real reason, I finally admitted to myself, that I don’t want Kari to get her ears pierced yet is that she doesn’t need any more pressure to seem older or more sophisticated than she is.

Our conversation sitting on my bed the other night covered a lot of ground. “Why, Mommy?” she implored once more. “Why do I have to wait?” I felt like I was listening to one of those insistent emergency broadcast tests you hear on the radio, where you’re supposed to be ready to spring into action in case of a life-threatening emergency. Inspiration struck instead: Because, I replied, in our family we think that’s a special privilege that’s worth waiting for. And, I thought privately, Oh honey, if you only knew about all the decisions you’ll have to make later on, decisions I’m not even ready to think about. Out loud I said something like, you will have many choices to make about behavior and relationships, and even if your friends are all doing something it doesn’t mean it’s right for you. And that is not because I’m a party pooper or don’t remember desperately wanting to grow up, it’s because I’ve been through growing up and I know that you only pass through childhood once. There’s no hurry.

I can see, if she can’t, that my daughter is still a little girl who relishes being read to even though she’s a capable reader herself, still plays dress-up and dolls with her friends or her sister, loves her baby cousins and her uncle’s new puppies with equal passion, and on occasion holds hands with her mom. Even 10 seems so young, but I have to stick with my end of the bargain now that it’s struck. So I suggested that when the time comes, when she does turn 10, we will make a special day for just the two of us, where we would go together to have her ears pierced, choose special earrings, have lunch together. And we will celebrate, one step at a time, her growing up.

Kris Berggren writes from Minneapolis. She can be reached by e-mail at bergolk@earthlink.net

National Catholic Reporter, February 16, 2001