How do I tell my parents about my tattoo?
November 17, 2005 11:13 AM   Subscribe

Hello! I'd like some advice on how to tell my parents I have a tattoo, without ruining Christmas.

So my parents are coming to visit me for the holidays. Last summer I got two wonderful tattoos or orchids, one on the back of each calf. I know it's not something my parents would have approved of. I know this because back in high school when I asked if I could get a tattoo, my dad gave me a look and just said "wait until you're out of college". Meaning, I think "wait until we're no longer financially responsible for you, and have no way to really punish you". So there you go! I'm 24, going to grad school in Ireland, living off loans, and in no way indebted to my parents financially.

So why do I have this nagging fear that when I show them my tattoos, it will ruin Christmas? I can see my mother freaking out, asking me lots of questions, stressing to me that they're permanant, and then she'll huff and possibly sulk. She has this great knack for sulking. My dad will be stoic, as dads are, and probably say something like "well, it's your body" in a very disapproving tone.

My sister, who will also be visiting, knows. I took her aside at the last get together and showed her. Her reaction was: "Oh my god! They're so big! What did you do to yourself! You're going to hell!" And she's pretty liberal.

I am having *dreams* about my parents finding out. I dream that we're hanging out and I suddenly realize I'm wearing shorts and have to walk backwards out of the room, hoping they don't notice.

I'm not ashamed of my tattoos. I love them dearly. I should not be afraid of showing my parents. I feel that if I keep it a secret, they will eventually find out some other way, and then be hurt that I kept it from them. I want to tell them directly and honestly.

So.. how exactly do I tactfully approach the subject without destroying the holiday spirit?
posted by kindle to Human Relations (41 answers total)
Tell them now instead of waiting for them to see it (and thus increasing the chance for an emotional reaction).
posted by deadfather at 11:17 AM on November 17, 2005

I've never been to Ireland, but what are the chances that you're going to be wearing shorts there in the middle of winter? Keep your pants on and avoid the problem entirely. This advice could also be successfully applied to other situations. But we won't get into that now . . .
posted by quadog at 11:18 AM on November 17, 2005

You don't have to tell your parents, but you obviously want to. I would say wait for another non-holiday time to unveil your new art. They don't need to know you have a tattoo, and if you're the slightest bit worried it will ruin their holiday and yours - just wait. Since you've had them for a while already what's a few more months?
posted by Constant Reader at 11:18 AM on November 17, 2005

Don't worry about it -- I'm a parent and with 2 kids (17 and 23) and just keep in mind a year from now they won't even think about it. Practice bringing it up and just do it.
posted by orlin at 11:22 AM on November 17, 2005

I hid a tattoo from my Dad for a long time. When I told him -- when we were on vacation, when I couldn't avoid looking really weird with a t-shirt I have over my bathing suit -- I just said "I just want you to know, I have a tattoo. You don't have to like it but it isn't going anyplace" and he grunted and never mentioned it again.

In your case it seems like it would be exceptionally easy to keep them covered if you think it's going to be a holiday-ruiner, and while I generally feel that erring on the side of truth-telling is a good plan, it seems like keeping it from them during a generally overtense holiday time [I may be projecting here] might be better. Then you can maybe let them know over the phone, they can imagine something in their own minds, and then by the time you tell them it will soften the blow. Since your Dad was on the record as saying "wait until..." and you waited, it seems that you have some sort of useful reply should they want to flip out terribly, but I wouldn't let it get to that.

Basically I'd figure out what you think would be most respectful of your parents considering that you have the easy option to not tell them since it's wintertime in Ireland. I'm sure your tattoos are lovely, but you seem equally sure that your parents won't think so. Unless you have something to prove along the lines of "I love them and you love me so you HAVE TO LOVE MY TATTOOS" I'd really try to err on the side of discretion and respect and make sure you don't have some hidden in-your-face agenda that is making this more of an issue than it needs to be. I sympathize, I was very anxious before I told my family, but once they got the initial idea that there was never going to be a time going forward that I was without a tattoo, they resigned themselves in a pretty okay fashion. I think me having the "this is about me, not you" attitude helped a lot along with my decision not to argue about a decision I had already made.
posted by jessamyn at 11:24 AM on November 17, 2005

I don't see why you can't enjoy a nice holiday and tell your parents afterward. I also don't understand your choices: "Tell them," or "Keep it secret." Do you tell your parents everything? There's a big difference between (1) a secret, (2) something that's none of your damn business, and (3) something that doesn't concern you.
posted by cribcage at 11:26 AM on November 17, 2005

Do it after Christmas? If they're going to hate it, you might as well not ruin a nice family Christmas.
posted by jikel_morten at 11:27 AM on November 17, 2005

"You're going to hell!" And she's pretty liberal.

Pretty liberal? No. Liberal relative to your parents? Maybe.

If you decide to tell them, I'd tell them over the phone before they see them, so at least they'll be prepared. And tell them now, so they have time to stew now and will just be curious later.
posted by mattwatson at 11:27 AM on November 17, 2005

Good lord, you got tattooed on the back of your calves? Your parents may be more disappointed in your aethestic sense than anything else.

Seriously though, you're 24. You should be dealing with your parents on an Adult-Adult level. Either don't say anything about it or say something now. Don't wait 'till the Holidays to jump them with something they disapprove of.

And then examine your relationship with them.
posted by unixrat at 11:30 AM on November 17, 2005

I'd go one of two routes. My preferred route would be to just not tell them until later. As everyone pointed out, they probably won't find out, so why chance ruining the holiday? Do it at another time that's less important.

But if you really feel like you have to tell them, I'd do it now, through email or the phone. Give them a chance to digest the info and get over any initial anger they may have. (Or the initial stages of anger that they will have forever, whichever the case may be.) That way, hopefully, by the time Christmas rolls around, they will have realized that there isn't much they can do about it and that it's silly to ruin a holiday over it.
posted by undertone at 11:31 AM on November 17, 2005

"Dad? Sit down please. I have something to tell you. I'm pregnant. I think the father is someone on the Nigerian football team that was in town last month, but it is hard to say who exactly. Since I started smoking crack, I have been such a slut! Anyway, I am hoping my gonorrhea doesn't complicate the pregnancy. Can I move back home? And oh yeah, I have a tattoo."
posted by LarryC at 11:32 AM on November 17, 2005

Jessamyn's advice (and others) reminds me of conversation I witnessed where a longtime-tattooed friend was advising a newly-tattooed friend on exactly this issue, and he said: "dude, whatever you do, don't tell them over Christmas."
posted by scody at 11:32 AM on November 17, 2005

I don't see why it's any of their business. Like you said, you're on your own, it's your body.

I can relate to that kind of stress in dealing with parents, and generally it's because we are dependent on their emotional support. With this issue I think your fear might be overblowing it to your own detriment. If you concentrate on having to tell them, like coming out, you're creating an adverserial situation. It doesn't have to be that way. If you are confident in yourself and what these tattoos give to you, that is what your parents should see, and any disapproval is their issue.
posted by scazza at 11:36 AM on November 17, 2005

Don't do it after Christmas- why torture yourself? Do it now, right now, over the phone, and by the time Christmas comes around, they'll be over it. My sister freaked out for a month about telling me parents about her belly button ring- and then she did it and they really didn't care. So do it now and take the weight off your shoulders.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:38 AM on November 17, 2005 [1 favorite]

My wife just got a tattoo, and is quite proud of it. I was hoping she wouldn't tell my parents - who I knew wouldn't approve of it and would probably hate it, and probably get upset with me for allowing her to have it.

But, she ended up showing my mom - and now my mom's seriously planning on getting one next time she's in Thailand from my cousin who's a tattoo artist. And my dad's perfectly okay with it, thinking it's cool. And apparently my aunts all recently got one too - all people I could've sworn would've been disgusted by the site of tattoos.

Something strange happened to everyone when I moved out.
posted by icontemplate at 11:39 AM on November 17, 2005

If you're really worried about it ruining the holiday, wait. You don't need to wear shorts wherever it is you celebrate, do you?

When you decide to tell them, I'd go with "Mom, Dad, I have some big tattoos. I'd like you both to be adults and realize that this does not make me evil." (OK, that's probably hostile).

But is there any secret other than just telling them the truth? Tell them why you like them.

But I'm not very tolerant of folks that think tattoos are the mark of the devil or lowlifes or what-not. And my parents have long gotten over the idea that I'll live my life to please them. They respect my decisions, I respect theirs. I'd ask for something similar from your parents.
posted by teece at 11:45 AM on November 17, 2005

Unless you have something to prove along the lines of "I love them and you love me so you HAVE TO LOVE MY TATTOOS" I'd really try to err on the side of discretion and respect and make sure you don't have some hidden in-your-face agenda that is making this more of an issue than it needs to be.

As usual, jessamyn is on the mark. I don't understand why this is an issue. If you don't think your parents will like the tattoos, don't tell them about them. Do you also feel compelled to share your porn collection or stash of junk food? (Not saying your tattoos share any negative characteristics of either except that they're not likely to elicit compliments from Mom and Dad.) You do sound like you feel a need to tell them, in which case I'd say do it either now or after the holidays, but I don't see why you feel that need. Why is it their business?
posted by languagehat at 11:46 AM on November 17, 2005

Oh, and regarding "my parents didn't care" and "my mom's getting a tattoo!"—that's great, but I doubt it's at all relevant to kindle's parents' likely reaction.
posted by languagehat at 11:47 AM on November 17, 2005

I'll agree with much of what's been said. Christmas is a high-stress time for many people. It's a bad time to "come out" with anything that might trigger family conflict.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:56 AM on November 17, 2005

I got a tattoo when I was 21. My parents still don't know - I'm 36.
posted by oh pollo! at 12:18 PM on November 17, 2005

They're entirely relevant responses, especially coming from parents likely suspected to despise tattoos in the first place.

Tell them now or not at all (that's my plan anyway, as I'm in this same situation)...
posted by hototogisu at 12:38 PM on November 17, 2005

Why is this a big deal? You got it, you must not have thought it was extremely out there to get one, treat it as such. If they notice shrug it off, if they don't notice then don't worry. You're an adult, you made a choice... on some level this means they succeeded in raising you.

Either you people live in bizzaro-world, or I do. My Mom got a tattoo ~37 years ago, and proudly shows it off all these years later to everyone, including my extreme right-wing Grandfather. Of my friends I'm the only person I know who doesn't have one, and then only because I fear/hate needles.
posted by togdon at 12:57 PM on November 17, 2005

My dad will be stoic, as dads are, and probably say something like "well, it's your body" in a very disapproving tone.

Hmmmm... that would be me.
posted by Doohickie at 1:09 PM on November 17, 2005

Well wait, I think hiding it is not what she wants to do. She's obviously proud of these tattoos, it's a part of who she is, she wants to show off to her parents. She doesn't care if they approve (though she might want it), but she wants them to see. I don't think "Don't tell them" is going to solve her paticular situation. I would calmly tell them how much you love your tattoos, and how much they mean to you, and how you know they'd disapprove but they really mean a lot to you and that you've been thinkin about it for a long time and ... you get the drift. Preempt their "Did you think about this" and other objections, let them know how much they mean to you, to the point where they would feel guilty making it an issue. The key is to make them feel guilty enough to where they can't get angry at you. Don't let it bother you so much, yeah they disapprove but that's what parents are for -- to not like anything we do.
posted by geoff. at 1:30 PM on November 17, 2005

To me your situation is reminiscent of "coming out" to one's parents. I -- and many of my gay friends -- ended up telling our families during holiday visits, as "face-to-face" was preferred over relying on the telephone. There's no right-time or wrong-time to share personal issues with parents. As said above, telling your parents about your tatoos is something that you should be able to do on an "adult-to-adult" basis. At 24 years old you are likely finding an evolution beyond the "parent-to-child" relationship. I hope you can use your "tatoo outing" as a means of acknowledging this change. Couched in the right way (e.g. "Mom, Dad, I want us to always have a healthy, honest and respectful relationship. I made a personal decision and want to always be upfront with you...etc.").
posted by ericb at 1:32 PM on November 17, 2005

You can't have it both ways. You either don't tell them and justify it (reasonably in my opinion) that it's your body and your decision who sees them and who doesnt, or you tell them and they react the way they're going to react. There's no 'tactful approach' that's going to alter how they feel about these things. Your concern about their possible over-reaction is a concern not about this in particular thing but about the form your interactions with them take, and that's something that isn't based on a single opening statement - that's an entire way you relate to each other. It's not something you change overnight.

Personally I wonder to what extent your desire to show them is a bit... confrontational? I don't want to say hostile, but when I read this bit:

my dad gave me a look and just said "wait until you're out of college". Meaning, I think "wait until we're no longer financially responsible for you, and have no way to really punish you". So there you go!

it's hard for me not to see it as reflecting a certain amount of desire in you to give him the old nyah-nyah. Maybe the way they react to you is in part because of the way you react to them, and expect them to react.
posted by phearlez at 1:44 PM on November 17, 2005

Is it possible that your anticipation of their reaction was possibly responsible in a small part for your decision to get a tattoo? If you think the reaction will be sulking and stoicism respectively on the part of mom and dad, determine whether you want to face that at Christmas and whether it'd interfere with their enjoyment of the holiday. And whether you care about their enjoyment.

Is your sister likely to let it slip or throw this out in conversation? I have no idea about your family's conversation dynamics but it sounds like something that she might blurt out if there's some tension. You might want to prepare for that eventuality if it's bothersome. To me, this whole thing sounds like something to downplay. It really sounds like you think having the tattoos is a big deal, so it becomes a big deal for others.
posted by mikeh at 1:50 PM on November 17, 2005

My mother hates my tattoos. I have many. Every time I get a new one she gets all dramatic about it. And you know what? That's fine. If she wants to feel horrible that's her choice. I have made it clear to her, however, that I just won't talk about the why's. You know-- "why would you do that to yourself?" "why don't you realize that when you're older you're going to regret it?" etc. She can be upset on her own time.

In your case, if your mom's going to pout, she's going to pout. Might as well accept it and not let it bother you. I think you're giving their reaction too much power. It literally can't ruin Christmas unless you allow it to by engaging in that sort of thing.
posted by miss tea at 2:04 PM on November 17, 2005

Dear Lord, if you're not old enough to get tatooed without worrying about parental disapproval, then you're not old enough to have them. Send them back. If just getting tatooed does this, what will happen when you marry gay triplets, get a heroin habit, or become a Scientologist?


Do not bring it up. Languagehat is right, it is not their business.

On the other hand, wear whatever clothes like.

If observations are made, say "Oh that? I've had it for ages." And then change the subject.

Perhaps this is the threshold of adulthood looming. Step over it and suck it up.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:16 PM on November 17, 2005

I'm 31, and got my left ear pierced a couple of years ago. When I told my mother about it on the phone, all I got was a sigh. She can't say much, she's got a couple of tattoos herself.

(this was the woman who told me 16 years ago, "if you ever come home with an earring, dont bother coming home.." - she's mellowed a bit..)
posted by mrbill at 2:17 PM on November 17, 2005

Wait a second, isn't this winter? Won't you be wearing pants?

Why do you feel compelled to tell them in the first place? They won't see it anyway.

If you are planning on wearing a skirt, I would just not say a thing about them. They may notice and whine a bit about them, then you just shrug and as someone said earlier say 'they aren't going anywhere'.

I have 2 tattoos. Granted, one is only visible if i have on a tank top and my hair up, but I've never felt compelled to sit my parents down and inform them.

Back of your calves? Sheesh. One more vote for the horror being over your aesthetic sense.
posted by pieoverdone at 3:44 PM on November 17, 2005

Compassion, people! Sheesh.

The person in question is obviously concerned about not hurting her parents' feelings by being seen as disrespecting them, and has profound respect for them as people and therefore, for their opinions even when in dissent. There is nothing wrong with any of this.

I believe she cannot hide them, because she is concerned with possibly accidentally revealing the tattoos, and therefore being seen as sneaky or dishonest for NOT telling them what she's done to her flesh.

@kindle: I would do this. Have a friend photograph them with a decent camera in nice light, and then print them out in a postcard-sized print and matt them so they look really nice. Then sit down in a time of low, low stress, such as after dinner (bonus of everyone being slightly tired then), and say,

"Look, Mum and Dad, I have made the decision to get some artwork inked onto my skin. I have photographs of the tattoos here in my hands, if you want to see them. And if you'd like to see the genuine article, I can show you at your request. If you'd rather have nothing to do with my tattoos, I can respect that, and will keep them covered up while I'm in your home."

How does that sound?

posted by tarintowers at 5:16 PM on November 17, 2005

That sounds Oprah-esque. And it's making a big production out of it. Treat them as mundane and unworthy of mention, I say.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:30 PM on November 17, 2005

Another vote for waiting until after the holidays rather than calling or e-mailing before.

If you call before, it's not going to go away; chances are good that your parents aren't going to be okay with the tattoos by the time you get there. Instead, you'll pull in the driveway or meet at the airport, and instead of being greeted with a hug, you'll get, "Oh, gawd, so let's see them. I can't believe you got tattoos--!" and you'll have to pull up your pants on the porch or in the terminal and it'll be a big awkward thing. Instead of a "hello," it'll be a fashion show they disapprove of. And throughout the rest of the visit, chances are good that you'll get tsks of the tongue, shakes of the head, and everyone pointing it out to aged relatives (who will also request to see the tats immediately) at holiday gatherings.

While you shouldn't tell them right away, on the other hand, don't lie about it. If you do wake up wearing shorts in the living room, or if the tattoos peek out from under a cuff, you're going to have to suck it up and tell them pretty soon, because lying will only make it way worse later. Obviously, once they've seen the tattoos unannounced, the situation's not getting better either way.

I don't advocate waiting to tell them until the visit's completely over, but maybe two or three days before you leave? Hopefully that doesn't conflict with, I don't know, Christmas. I advise telling them in person, but not before you have to live with them for a couple of weeks.
posted by booksandlibretti at 6:28 PM on November 17, 2005

If you're worried about ruining Christmas, keep them covered and tell them after the holidays. If you want to make things really exciting, tell them on the way to church like my brother did - your parents can't yell at you in church! ;)

If you're worried about how to break it to them, just be blunt. "I have a tattoo, and I know you don't approve, but it's permanent and I love it." Try to explain why it means so much to you, and make sure to add that you can cover it up if you want to. My mom freaked when I told her I was getting my first tattoo, and then REALLY freaked when she accidentally found out about the second one. After the initial shock wore off, she calmed down. She still doesn't like them, but she hasn't dragged me off to have them removed either. And this is my mother who always promised to have any tattoos her kids got sandblasted off!

If your parents are as against tattoos as you say, I don't think there's any good way to lessen the initial shock. Just try to be understanding of their position, and keep reminding them that it is important to you and that you can cover it up. Who knows, maybe your parents will be surprisingly calm about the whole thing.
posted by geeky at 9:12 PM on November 17, 2005

Do what my friend did. Run out of the house amidst changing or something where your tattoo become visible. In the process, they see the tattoo, but you don't have time to stop and chat about it. By the time you get home, they'll hopefully already be over it.
posted by jmd82 at 9:55 PM on November 17, 2005

I got it out of the way so quickly that I visited my parents while I still had the bandage on my ankle. Mum freaked out at the sight of my bandage ("Oh my god, what happened?") that the alternative (a tattoo) was almost a relief for her. I had told them for years that I wanted to get an ankle tattoo, so it's not like it should've been that much of a surprise.

Mum was disappointed at first, and kept asking why ("I never thought you'd be stupid enough to get one"). But a couple of weeks later, I spotted her surreptitiously checking it out, and she commented that, yes, it had grown on her. She now proudly asks me to wave my ankle around at family members and friends when a discussion about tattoos comes into play.
posted by chronic sublime at 2:02 AM on November 18, 2005

I've been hiding a tattoo for 8 years now. It is on my ankle and on the 3 or 4 occasions where I had to wear a skirt around my parents (I don't seem them much outside of holidays) that didn't cover it up, I wore a bandaid. I think that the bandaid has drawn more attention to the issue.

So now I am at the point where my parents MAY have seen it or suspect that something is there and are waiting for me to tell them.

I tried to tell them at my sister's wedding a few years back (an event with a skirt) and they were so on edge from all the wedding prep that I decided not to, similar to the X-mas situation.

Why did I tell them in the first place? I was 18 and my parents regularly freaked out over my twin sister's few tattoos that she got before she was 18 (illegally) and since they have not like the tattoos that she's gotten in adulthood. They don't disown her or anything but if she wears a tanktop or bathing suit, there is a lot of sighing.

Thanks for posting this question. Answers have given me ideas on dealing with this too.

I have a worry that either at my wedding someday or at a birth of a child I will need to worry about this bandaid on my ankle or ensuring that tall socks are put on my feet before my parents approach the delivery room. And isn't this a stupid thing to stress out about?
posted by k8t at 2:32 AM on November 18, 2005

Back of your calves? Sheesh. One more vote for the horror being over your aesthetic sense.

WTF? I must have missed the part of the question where she asked for aesthetic feedback.

Kindle, I think tattoos are sexy as hell, and bravo to you for getting what you wanted, and where you wanted. Ignore the fucking perfect people.
posted by tr33hggr at 6:41 AM on November 18, 2005

Okay, having read all these remarks, I wanted to say thanks for all the feedback. I had planned, since I don't see my parents that much as it is, to just casually walk out one morning in shorts and, as i_am_joe's_spleen said, just say I've had it for ages and let the matter drop. But knowing how tense holidays can be, I do worry that if it does become a worst-case scenario, it could be very very bad. And I don't want them to think I was hiding it from them, because I don't feel ashamed of my tattoos, nor do I really need their approval. Yes, as geoff said, I want to show it off. I do think I'm making a bigger deal of it than it really is. I like the idea of just telling them now and by the time they get here the matter may be forgotten, and I like the idea of just not mentioning it and if they see it then that's what happens. Gotta make a decision sooner or later I guess. Anyways, thanks for everyone's comments.
posted by kindle at 5:36 AM on November 24, 2005

Wait--isn't the whole purpose of getting a tatoo to ruin Christmas?
posted by Ironmouth at 8:57 PM on December 5, 2005

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