The Tooth Fairy

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Explaining The Tooth Fairy To Kids

How to handle the myth of the winged canine collector.

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The myth of the tooth fairy was essentially created as a way to make the weird, sometimes painful experience of losing teeth a little less traumatic. Telling kids a magical fairy will fly into their room and exchange their bloody nub of a baby tooth with some sort of toy or trinket can make it all a bit more pleasant. But talking to kids about the tooth fairy can get tricky. As they may look you squarely in the eye and ask, “But is the tooth fairy real?”

The origin of the “tooth fairy”

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Before we dig in to how to talk about it with kids, it can be helpful to know a little backstory on this very niche dental fairy. It’s believed the tooth fairy first made it’s way into American culture via a 1908 story in The Chicago Tribune, in which a writer named Lillian Brown suggested parents tell their children a “tooth fairy” will leave them five cents under their pillow for every tooth they lose. She suggested it as a way to make kids more agreeable to having loose baby teeth pulled. The idea caught on, and was published many times as a suggestion for parents. Thus, the idea of the tooth fairy became embedded in popular culture.

Finding that “make-believe” tooth fairy balance

I reached out to Joanna Faber and Julie King, co-authors of How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen and the forthcoming How To Talk When Kids Won't Listen. I asked for their advice on how to discuss all things tooth fairy, and how to deal with any fairy fallout.

“The conflict for parents is that they want their children to enjoy a childhood full of magic and wonder,” says Faber. “At the same time, some of us feel a little uneasy about lying to our children. Especially when our kids are directly asking us for information about the world they live in. Happily, there is a middle ground where everyone gets to have their cake and eat it, too.”

The middle ground Faber speaks of, is one where everything doesn’t have to be taken so, well, literally: “Kids can experience the joy of imagination without believing that it is literally true. Ask any kid who has ever had a pretend tea party with their stuffed animals, or has spent the afternoon jumping over rivers of lava in the living room. They know there isn’t any real tea in those cups, and the living room is reassuringly lava-free. But that doesn’t take away from the fun. In fact, the pretending is part of the fun.”

Keep the whole thing playful, Faber suggests, and talk about the tooth fairy in such a way that your child understands that you are pretending, if that’s important to you. It’s absolutely OK if your kid knows the tooth fairy is actually just mom in her robe sneaking in at midnight to jam a little cash under their pillow. Again, the fun is in the fantasy.

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How to talk to your kids about the tooth fairy

But what if your kid really insists on pinning you down, and demands to know what part of the world the tooth fairy hails from? And why isn’t she on the news more often? And how does her passport work? Well, don’t panic.

“It’s a big job for kids to learn about the world they live in and how it works,” King says. “We don’t have to make it harder for them in the name of giving them a magical experience. If your child is confused by your pretending, and a playful approach is not working, feel free to explain what is going on in more direct language. You can say something like, ‘The Tooth Fairy is a pretend character. She doesn’t really exist.’”

Being a tooth fairy-free house

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Maybe you’re a parent who just doesn’t go in for the whole money-for-teeth exchange rigamarole. Maybe you find it strange, or unnecessary, or maybe you just don’t want to have to remember where you put some tiny satin “tooth pillow” in the middle of the night. Whatever the reason, it’s of course perfectly fine to not do the tooth fairy at all. The hitch, however, will be when your kid learns about it from peers, and wants to know why his teeth go in the garbage, while his friend’s teeth go into a monogrammed box from Etsy.

This might seem like a difficult conversation to have with a small child, but Faber actually suggests some very simple language for this predicament, such as: “Some people like to pretend there's a tooth fairy. I don't like to play that game. I like to play other games, like...”

How to not spoil the Fairy for other kids

So, let’s say your kid has grasped the idea that the tooth fairy is actually something made up, that’s just for fun. But what about other kids? According to a study done back in 2014, about 40-60% of children believe in the tooth fairy. Which is kind of a lot, when you think about it. How do you keep your child from shattering the fairy dreams of their friends? How do you keep them from sauntering into school and shouting their truth far and wide?

“If you have an inkling that your adult friends will be upset if your child tells their kid the truth about the tooth fairy, you can tell your kid that,” King says. “Say, ‘Johnny’s parents want him to believe that the tooth fairy is real. They might be upset if you told Johnny that it’s just pretend.’”

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But King acknowledges that it’s very hard for little kids to keep secrets. “If your kid tells anyway, no doubt he or she will have a robust discussion in which little Johnny defends his world view and your child presents the opposing argument. That’s not such a terrible thing. Johnny will probably continue to believe his parents over the neighbor kid. And if he doesn’t, then his parents will have to face the challenge of having a discussion about the nature of reality with their own child.”

In other words, it isn’t your job to doggedly preserve the myth of the tooth fairy for others. You get to tell your kid what you feel is right and appropriate. This isn’t to say you should let them hand out flyers at preschool announcing: “SANTA IS REALLY JUST YOUR DAD IN A POLYESTER BEARD!” Because along with whatever else we teach our kids, we need to instill in them a sense of kindness, and respect for other people’s belief systems.

Sources interviewed:

Joanna Faber and Julie King, co-authors of How To Talk So LITTLE Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7, and the companion app, HOW TO TALK: Parenting Tips in Your Pocket.

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