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.