When my daughter was 14, she started begging to get her ear cartilage pierced. To be totally honest, I have always thought extra earrings were pretty cool, but not necessarily for my young teen. So, I ignored her like I ignored her childhood requests for a pony. She didn’t have any friends who had cartilage piercings; she just thought it looked cool. And to a girl who never really felt “cool,” this was the way she wanted to demonstrate that she wasn’t “just” the stellar student, the responsible big sister, the hardworking, considerate, and helpful daughter. But she was also my child who always had the perfect justification to support her cause, and she was beginning to work her persuasive magic on me.
As I began to consider her request within the context of her own adolescent development, I realized how normal it was. An extra ear piercing might just be “edgy” enough to boost her social credibility and her need for an identity apart from what she saw as a boring “good girl.” Although I understood, I still wasn’t on board.
Not long after one more plea that ended with another “No,” my daughter was telling me about a friend who had just been given a purity ring by her parents along with their request and expectation that their daughter would wear it as her agreement to wait until marriage before having sex. We live in the deep South. It happens..
Working in sexual heath and teen pregnancy prevention, I have read all about promise rings, purity pledges, and even purity balls where preteen girls wear near-wedding-gowns and are escorted by their father as they pledge to remain a virgin until marriage. Not surprisingly, the data on these endeavors indicate they don’t work. I’ll decline my personal commentary on the social and ethical aspects of it.
But it started a great conversation.
I told my daughter that although I would like for her to wait to have sex until she is in a mature, adult relationship that is meaningful to her (rather than out of curiosity, pressure, or a drunken hook up), I also told her that her decision to have sex would be hers to make based on her relationship and her readiness in her own heart, mind and body. But besides that, I had to mention the absolute importance of contraception to prevent pregnancy and barrier methods for preventing sexually transmitted infections. I insisted that I would never request a promise to wait until a wedding night, but that these other things were absolutely expected. Then I realized that I actually WAS wanting a promise from her: I wanted her to promise me that she would not jump into sex without forethought and preparation.
And that’s when it dawned on me. A promise ring might not be such a bad idea.
As she rolled her eyes trying to get out of the conversation, I told her I had made a decision about her cartilage piercing. I would let her get the piercing if it had meaning for her. She was good with that - anything to get the cartilage ring. And since I really think they’re cool, I decided this would give me a great excuse to get my own similar piercing - but it could be also be meaningful instead of just a midlife whim. So here’s what our promise rings meant for us: it was still about sex and relationships, but our promises were different.
I promised to listen without judgment (hence the ring in my ear).
She promised to tell me when she was ready for birth control (with the expectation that it would be before she had sex).
We agreed and shared the piercing event (which she tolerated much better than I did).
That was about eight years ago.
Since then, we’ve had many more conversations about love, relationships, and sexuality. I’ve always done my best to listen without judgment and provide honest answers to her questions. I feel comfortable that she has not only been honest with me, but she’s also been honest with herself and her boyfriends, and she has made decisions that were in line with her personal values and goals.
Maybe promise rings aren’t such a bad idea after all. Just be sure to make promises you can keep.