Complaints by a former retail worker who says she felt pressured to pierce the ears of a crying girl have reignited discussion around what circumstances children should be allowed to define their own personal boundaries.
Eventually the mother relented, and officials from Claire’s Illinois headquarters now say they are investigating the incident and clarifying company policy.
In a statement Tuesday, the company adds that “any child piercing we do is carried out with the best care in consultation with, and with the agreement of the legal guardian.”
In the meantime, Marks says she’s been inundated by supportive comments left on the open letter to Claire’s that she posted to Facebook on Sunday.
In it, the 32-year-old outlined reservations about how and when children should be forced to be pierced, recounting several “grey area” incidents where “children resisted heavily, were pressured and intimidated by the parents into settling down, and the children weren’t happy with what had happened.”
Marks says she reached her breaking point March 31 when a girl sobbed for 30 minutes while protesting a piercing requested by her mother. Marks says she told a co-worker who was also trying to pierce the child that she couldn’t continue, and the mother eventually eased off, too.
Marks’ post about the experience, in part, read:
“I was to assist with the piercing, since it was what we call a “double,” both ears at the same time. It’s reserved for nervous kids who might change their mind after the first earring goes in.
The girl pleaded and sobbed for thirty minutes not to be pierced. Despite Mom saying, “Honey, we can go home whenever you want,” she was not letting her daughter go home. She was putting a great deal of pressure on her daughter to go through with the piercing.
This child was articulate, smart, and well aware of herself and her body. She expressed that she didn’t want us touching her, that we were standing too close, that she was feeling uncomfortable.
She made it clear she no longer wanted to get her ears pierced. She begged, over and over again, for Mom to please, just take her home.
That child’s message was loud and clear to me: Do not touch my body, do not pierce my ears, I do not want to be here. I’m inclined to respect a child’s right to say, “NO,” to any adult forcing any kind of non-medical contact on them, so I told the other piercer I wouldn’t be part of the ear piercing for this girl.
To my great relief, in the end the mother respected her daughter’s wishes, and took her home.”
The next day, Marks alleges her manager told her that she should not have refused the piercing. Marks gave her notice on the spot.
“When you’re working in a store, you’re representing that company and I thought: ‘Good God, what am I representing?'” says Marks, whose post generated hundreds of comments, including several that suggested it’s wrong for parents to force piercings on their children.
Claire’s responded in an emailed statement that Marks “acted appropriately and in line with our policy by refusing to do the piercing,” noting employees have the right to refuse when a child resists.
“We are investigating the specific store instances she mentions, and will take appropriate corrective action. We will also be reviewing the policy to ensure that the intent is clear,” says the statement.
Policy 509 reads: “When a child is resisting the ear piercing, politely suggest to the parent that perhaps it would be better to perform the ear piercing on another day and/or when two associates are available to perform a ‘double’ piercing,” referring to the practice of piercing both ears at the same time.
WATCH BELOW: A shocking video of a mother pinning her daughter down as she gets her ears pierced has raised questions around children and the proper age for piercings. (Aired March 2015)
Parenting expert and Peterborough, Ont.-based author Ann Douglas says once-routine traditions — including ear piercings and circumcision — are now battlegrounds for evolving notions of child autonomy.
While acknowledging that little is known about the mother and daughter’s back story in this case, Douglas says it does offer a good lesson in how a child’s wishes can be addressed in difficult situations.
“Some of the things we have to think about in this situation is: Is the child capable of making an informed decision at his or her stage of development, and if not, is it appropriate for the parent to step in? How urgent is this? How medically necessary is it?”
Douglas says not acknowledging a child’s feelings and wishes can affect their ability to set boundaries later in life in more mature relationships. She encourages families to discuss consent and autonomy on an ongoing basis.
That can start as young as infancy, when a parent can describe actions such as changing a diaper and acknowledging if a baby reacts to things they may not like, such as a cold wipe.
As kids get older and develop their vocabulary, Douglas advises against forcing them to hug or kiss relatives they see rarely for the sake of social convention.
“That’s disrespectful to the person the child is now and it’s harmful to the person that child will become over time,” says Douglas, whose most recent book, “Happy Parents, Happy Kids,” came out in February.
“Even though sometimes these discussions make parenting more complicated, I think they also make parenting richer and I think that we have fewer regrets after the fact if we’re able to maybe weigh these issues that we weren’t thinking about a generation or two ago.”
READ MORE: The body parts you should never have pierced
Marks says she’s pleased that Claire’s says it will address their piercing policy.
But she’d also like staff to be offered “some kind of training around sensitivity or a child’s bodily autonomy.”
“I’m eager to see follow through,” says Marks.