New mom Kylie Jenner shared a video of her 5-month-old daughter Stormi yesterday. It was sweet and cute, and despite the fact that the biggest news of the day was that Jenner landed the cover of Forbes magazine, the attention shifted to Stormi’s tiny ears and, tinier still, earrings. Twitter weighed in with concerns of how babies are not able to consent to said piercings, and furthermore, the choice seems trivial as a means to merely gender identify a child. To say the topic of piercing babies’ ears is polarizing is stating the obvious here.
I am not a mother. I feel like it’s important to state this up front because I fully acknowledge how little I could ever know about parenthood until I’m actually in it. But as a person who had her ears pierced at about 3 or 4 months old, I never felt super strongly about the topic. I respect the arguments made against piercing, but I also kind of felt like, What’s the big deal? and, Excuse me, but why are we judging other people’s parenting choices? But today, I tried something different. I asked my mom about it.
“I guess it’s an Italian immigrant thing to do,” she texted me when I asked why my sister and I both had our ears pierced so young. My mom, a first-generation American whose parents immigrated from Naples to Brooklyn in the 1950s, told me that my nonna (grandmother) did the same with her. “I had mine pierced by a lady with a needle, and she left a string tied in the ears until it healed. I saw it done on my sister 12 years later. I think my mom went to the same lady.”
My mom told me that the tradition was to replace the string with a gold earring once healed. Things were a bit more advanced by the time I was born. “I had yours done in a jewelry store recommended by [your pediatrician]. And the girl used a gun with the actual gold stud.” Did I cry?, I asked. “Not so much after the first ear, but when they did the second, boy, did you get mad.”
There are a lot of traditions in my family that relate to our Italian heritage—the first that come to mind are around holidays and what we eat during them—but my mother also told me that there’s also practical reasoning for piercing babies ears so young. “If I did it that young, I would take care of it and have less chance of an infection or complications. Also, less chance you would touch your ears with dirty hands while it was healing.” I asked what she makes of this criticism of a parent’s (famous or otherwise) decision to get their child’s ears pierced. “As long as it’s done under sanitary conditions, they should mind their own business.”
Of course, ear piercings at a young age transcends many different cultures too. In an article on Romper from last year, a Latinx writer Priscilla Blossom also addressed the push that often comes from those who criticize piercing babies ears at a young age: “My mother pierced my ears, and her mom pierced her babies’ ears, and so on and so forth. It’s a big part of the culture in many places. From Latin America to India to parts of Africa and the Middle East, people pierce their baby’s ears early. It’s like the turkey at Thanksgiving or the male circumcision—except ear piercings are nowhere near as invasive as circumcision and won’t make you sleepy like a plate of turkey.”
Blossom also describes how Hindu tradition includes ear piercing. As the BBC reports, “The ear-piercing ceremony (Karnavedha) and first haircut (Mundan) ceremonies are also considered highly significant. These sacraments are performed on both the sexes. Hindus believe that the piercing of a hole in the lower lobes of the ear has benefits of acupuncture.”
Out of curiosity, I texted a friend who’s a new mom and whose family is Hindu. She told me that, in her experience, ear piercings weren’t customary for babies. Then I reached out to a friend who’s Armenian—the Kardashians are as well—to ask if she was familiar with ear piercings being customary, and she also said no. I also happen to be a godmother to an adorable little girl who had her ears at 3 months old. Her mother, my oldest friend, is Egyptian and said it was a tradition for her family.
Honestly, all this texting (thank you, friends!) helped me learn a little bit more about tradition, but I also don’t think tradition is something to follow blindly. As much as I love some of my family’s own, I also believe that traditions are best when they’re challenged and have room to evolve.
This specific piece of Jenner news—which follows past instances of Kris, Kourtney, Kim, and Khloé all facing criticism for their parenting choices, mostly due to their public high profiles—led me to reflect on my own experience. I realize I have a specific point of view as someone who likes her ears pierced and added a few more holes once I was of legal age (Mom wasn’t entirely thrilled about that), but what it didn’t lead me to is a firm answer. I think that’s kind of the point. Will I pierce my own future children’s ears before they’re old enough to say yes or no? That seems way too hypothetical to respond to right now. But will I respect another parent’s choice to decide for themselves? Absolutely.