The advertisements above do not necessarily reflect the views of this blog, its authors, or host.

Tooth or Consequences

My daughter, Rachel, who is 5 years old, lost her first baby tooth last night. It was a rather tender moment – she was giving me a hug goodnight as I was tucking her in to bed.  During the hug, she pressed her head very firmly against mine, so much so that the force of my face up against hers actually sent the already loose lower right incisor free from the gum. I could actually hear the “crunching” sound of the tooth coming away from its socket, and I knew right away that the tooth popped out. The sight of blood coming from her mouth caused her to cry for a minute, but it was quickly replaced with pure elation and giddiness of this momentous occasion in the life of a 5 year old.

At this same moment came a time of pause and reflection on my part.  Do I, a skeptical non-believer in non-science, willfully add to my daughters growing mental rolodex of fantasy creatures and characters by re-enforcing the idea that there is a “Tooth Fairy” that will come in the middle of the night tonight to take away the tooth and leave behind a gift?

Parents are interesting people when it comes to the notions of Tooth Fairies, Santa Clauses, and Easter Bunnies. They know that these are entirely fictional characters, yet they pretend they really exist in what is likely an attempt to extend their child’s imagination, which is already tremendously active and complex by the time they are 5 years old. Or specifically in the case of the “Tooth Fairy”, it is perhaps to help ease any possible disconcerting feelings that might take hold of a child at this time in their life. Let’s face it, it seems unnatural for a body to shed its parts, even as they become unneeded. How could a 5-year old possibly understand that it’s ok unless they receive that reinforcement from the parents?

For a parent to deny their child the imaginative experience of these cultural figures would somehow deny them of the fantasies that all of the child’s peers are experiencing. I imagine that could be socially awkward, to have your kid be the only one on the playground with a missing tooth and to have the other kids ask what they got from the Tooth Fairy, only to have to say that they got nothing, or they don’t believe in Tooth Fairy, or the Tooth Fairy isn’t real – its probably too much to expect from a 5 year old.

Yet from the perspective of wanting to expose a child to rational thoughts and critical thinking skills as early as possible, the perpetuation of the Tooth Fairy myth goes directly against those efforts. The parents are the ones directly responsible for pulling off the deception, and without all the pageantry and distractions of Christmas or Easter, the culpability level on the part of the parent seems heightened. Are there any negative effects that can occur by lending such a direct hand in perpetuating the fantasy? It depends on whom you talk to. The majority of parents, no doubt, see no harm in playing the Tooth Fairy fantasy with their child, and some of those might find it somewhat depriving if a parent refused to play the role of the fairy. Some parents might show some concern for making the Tooth Fairy seem too real, but not to the point where it should not be practiced. And I recon there is a very small percentage of parents who flatly refuse to play Tooth Fairy, probably for hard-core religious purposes.

There is not much to find on the internet about the risks versus benefits of Tooth Fairy belief. Who is going to fund studies of that kind? But there are a few things about the Tooth Fairy myth that are worth mentioning:

The website www.tooth-fairy.org answers the pressing question: “Where did the Tooth Fairy get its start”

Rosemary Wells, a professor at Northwestern Dental School, seems to have been the only scholar to ever delve into the history of the Tooth Fairy in the United States. The results of her studies and fascination with the fairy led her back in 1993 to create a Tooth Fairy museum.

Just 2 weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal ran an article and a subsequent reader’s poll regarding the economics of Tooth Fairy activity. Turns out that through the results of the poll, 15 percent of their readers who took the poll do not promote the Tooth Fairy myth in their households.

But the burning question is: Did I participate in the Tooth Fairy myth for my daughter last night? The answer is yes. I can not lie, like George Washington and the cherry tree story (another myth I’ll delve into another time), and I admit that I took part in the cultural ritual of encouraging her to put the tooth under her pillow and her parents replacing it with a small gift. When she woke up this morning, she had a big grin on her face, less one tooth, as she embraced her new toy. While my heart is warmed to see such joy on the face of my daughter, my brain is hoping that I have not promoted too much truth decay.

22 comments to Tooth or Consequences

  • IdanH14

    I think you did right. From a 5-year-old prospective, she much rather be like any other kid at her age. Once she’ll be older, say 12-13, you can tell her that the Tooth Fairy, Santa and the Easter Bunny don’t exist. It’s even possible she will find that out herself. Kids are not so naive nowadays, in my humble opinion.

  • mastmaker

    et tu brute?

    Well….me too.

    When I did this almost an year back, we neglected to tell her that the tooth fairy would ‘take away’ the tooth and replace it with money. So in the morning, we were privy to the incongruous sight of her holding the money in her hand and crying for the tooth that the fairy purloined.

  • Kevin Beamer

    Ok, here’s a big stretch of a rationalization in favor of going on with the Tooth Fairy idea:

    Part of being a skeptic is accepting that sometimes you have to revise your own beliefs, even when you really like those beliefs. You are merely setting the stage for teaching your daughter that lesson. Eventually, she’ll realize the truth about the Tooth Fairy, revise her belief systems (I’m sure she’ll think of it that way when she’s 8), and go on with life. She’ll have learned that you can change what you believe in without the world coming to an end.

    By the way, I’m completely unqualified to deal with this issue. I’ve only had one Psychology 101 class, some decades ago, and I don’t have children. But, hey, why not stick my neck out – “fools rush in….”

    Finally, I’m not sure why you’re including Santa with the myths. He IS real, I have the presents from him to prove it!

    Kevin Beamer

  • Patrick Pricken

    Why not tell her that as parents, you’d like to keep the teeth as a souvenir and you’d be willing to buy it off her?

    Or that Grandma needs a new set of teeth and you’re collecting some for her? :-)

  • Muero

    I think it’s a little unclear: did you tell her it was her parents giving the gift or a magical fairy?

  • We told Rachel that the tooth fairy will take the tooth and leave a gift in its place.

    However, we have not played up the whole tooth fairy experience with words like “magical” or “enchanted”. We’ve kept it pretty low-key, only mentioning the words “Tooth Fairy” when directly asked.

    She has another loose tooth, so we’ll soon see how this develops.

  • Jim Shaver

    Evan:

    As you in fact are the tooth fairy, you can simply choose your words carefully while neither lying to your daughter nor telling her fanciful stories as truth. That’s how I have approached this issue with my children, and I think it has worked well.

    Here’s a funny story from some years ago when my daughter had a loose tooth that she wanted help removing. I think she was about seven then. I agreed to pull her tooth for her, but only on the condition that she would agree to a certain deal with me. She agreed, and I extracted.

    Later that day, after my daughter had told her mother the exciting news, and that she couldn’t wait to see how much money she would get, I asked my wife quietly what the going rate was for a child’s tooth. She said it was one dollar, and I then told her to double it this time.

    The next morning, my daughter ran from her room, squealing, “Mom, look! I got two dollars!” Then, she calmed herself, walked across the room, and handed me one dollar. “You get half,” she said. “A deal’s a deal.”

  • Jenn

    Well, to be clear, Rachel informed us that the tooth fairy was coming. So, she heard about this somewhere else. We played along. I agree with Kevin and I think he expressed the point very well.

  • gwenwifar

    Personally I don’t see anything wrong with letting children have their fantasies. Don’t we all have them anyway? She’ll find out the truth soon enough, and that’s where you can really make a difference.
    Think of it as a sort of vaccination. She’ll have a weak form of the bug for a while, get over it, then in a few years, when she is confronted with a bigger, badder version of the bug – someone tries to tell her about this great, good and true fantasy up there somewhere, who loves us and will either reward us with heaven or sends us to hell, she will think: “wait a minute, i’ve heard this before. it’s santa claus, right?”

  • TurtleTom

    My parents always played up the existence of the Tooth Fairy, Santa, Easter Bunny, etc. When they told me the truth it felt, to me, that I was growing up, and that I now get to join in on the game for my little sister’s sake. I don’t feel it’s done any damage to me. In fact, I tend to believe that the truth being told to led me to question what else is really real; ie. God, ghosts, etc…

  • Gib

    I don’t have kids, so how about this for a way of dealing with it ? Advice requested.

    You tell the kid that the tooth fairy will give her some money, and then you come back in 5 minutes later while she’s still awake, with a dodgy pair of wings on your back, and a stupid wand made of a couple of chopsticks taped together. You do a little dance, take her tooth and stick some money there.

    She knows the truth, will think it’s funny, and be able to tell her friends what the tooth fairy gave her.

    You can do the same thing at Christmas and Easter too.

    So, problems with that ?

  • By the time my niece asked me skeptically about the tooth fairy, she seemed to have already figured out that this stuff was all made up. I didn’t tell her directly it was “all lies”, but I did sort of smirk and say it was an amusing story, and suggest she wasn’t about to return the tooth fairy dividends. When the skeptic is also the parent, and a hard-liner, the child may be vulnerable to woo from some other adult or family member: “I WANT TO BELIEVE in the flying spaghetti monster, and I WON’T EAT MY GREENS until you let me worship his noodley awesomeness” :-)

  • telophase

    Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy *made* me a skeptic. I don’t recall ever believing in them, but I do recall arguing with my parents over them and attempting to provide my obviously idiotic parents with evidence that neither existed, which they always refuted.

    When my friend reported she’d seen her dad sneak into her room and replace her tooth with a shilling (we lived in Tanzania at the time, and a Tanzanian shilling was the going rate for a tooth), I confidently went to my parents with this info.

    Naturally, my mother insists TO THIS DAY that my friend’s dad actually *is* the Tooth Fairy.

    Mind you, at this same age (5), I confidently believed that a wish on the evening star would come true, and I spent many evenings idling by the window waiting for the star to come out so I could wish for wings. (I did wonder if the reason it never worked was that I wished on the planet Venus, and not a real star, so there was a little bit of logical thinking there, at least.)

  • Traveler

    Evan,

    I think your daughter should know the truth as revealed in this cartoon: http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=677#comic

  • Well, Jim, that’s one sleazy and cumbersome way for taking your wife’s money…

  • bushdave

    What happened to the formatting of this blog entry? The serif font combined with the low-contrast colors makes it hard to read!

  • IMHO, not allowing your kid enjoy a little fantasy like the tooth fairy for fear it will impact their rational judgement is no better than an overprotective parent not telling their kids about condoms because it might make them have sex.

    Besides fantasy land is just a part of growing up. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying your imagination or mythical creatures (either that or I have a lot of books to throw away). Kids that young likely won’t understand one way or another. But by allowing them to have them, you’ll have a concrete example by which to teach them rational thinking a few years down the road.

  • I actually asked this question on the forums last month and got some interesting replies. My wife loves to play up these cultural myths, such as the tooth fairy and I think you bring up a fair point about the child’s peers.

    What you have to remember is that kids lose their teeth for years to come. So at some point, as with my daughter, they’re going to wise up to the situation.

    That allowed for a great conversation between my daughter and I about critical thinking. I never told her the tooth fairy doesn’t exist, I let her come to that conclusion on her own by sorting out the facts. It was a very satisfying moment.

  • James Fox

    The ability to listen to and tell stories at five is more important than the need to resolutely make only rational observations of the natural world. We had fun with the TF and and Santa with both kids. They knew it was all wink wink nod nod by the time they were six or seven which led to great conversations about myths, stories and what we believe.

  • This is such a fun topic. My advice, having two kids, 7 and 11: Lie like hell to them about fantastical stuff as long as you possibly can.

    As Kevin basically said above, an essential part of being a good skeptic is the disposition to be willing to revise your beliefs.

    You’re not compromising either their confidence in you or their future ability to think critically. In fact, by encouraging their imaginations and all of the attendant fun and creativity, while at the same time providing a palpable context in which to learn the axiom “question everything,” you’re giving them the best of both worlds.

    Ruthlessly advocate for the existence of the supernatural, while gently introducing the tenets of skepticism. See how long it takes for a little Sherlock Holmes* to develop. :-)

    *Doyle be damned, of course. lol

  • timdarklighter

    On a funny, and sort of related note, I found out during my senior year of college (2003) that my mom had stashed many of my baby teeth in her dresser way back during the Tooth Fairy years (go packratting!) and I was able to use them for my final Instrumental Analysis (Chemistry) project to test the “Do teeth dissolve in cola?” myth using Atomic Absorption (AA) Spectroscopy. So in a way, the Tooth Fairy not only put penny in my pocket as a kid, but also helped me (and my professors) have an enjoyable and educational experience in my last semester of college.

    Needless to say, I wholly endorse the Tooth Fairy and may end up saving a few of my kids’ teeth just in case…

  • Skulker

    Evan,

    Enjoy the world of childhood fantasy but encourage them to ask questions and answer them at an age appropriate level.
    They will come to the truth on their own and will have learned to be critical thinkers without even knowing it.
    It worked for me and it worked for my three kids as well.

Leave a Reply