I know I’m not the only mother out there who cringes violently at the thought of a loose, wiggling, or detached tooth. Sometimes I have nightmares where I lose my own teeth, and they are among the most frightening ones I have (up there with tidal waves and realizing half-way through a college semester that I haven’t been to class and am going to fail). I have a certifiable phobia of teeth. And now my kids are losing theirs. And it’s gross.
There’s just something haunting and visceral about losing a part of your body – and a bone at that! Kind of akin to when a snake sheds its skin, it’s like a part of you that’s left behind, dead. I don’t know whether my phobia originated when I came across my own baby teeth hidden away in my mom’s jewelry box when I was a teenager. She thought they were cute and sentimental. I thought it looked like she had killed someone and was keeping a “trophy.”
Whatever your own sentiments on teeth and tooth loss, it’s inevitable when raising small children. By the end of my parenting career, I will have witnessed (or at least heard about, as I cower in another room, vomiting in my mouth) the loss of 60 baby teeth among my three children.
And yesterday, when my six-year-old daughter, Lyla, lost her fifth tooth (and her first top tooth), I started thinking about tooth loss and how it is truly a unique phase in our kids’ lives that I guess I need to start liking (?), or at least appreciating a little more.
For kids, losing teeth is the best experience ever. Lyla walks around like she’s 21, just beaming with pride, and I don’t have the heart to tell her that she now resembles a cross between a professional hockey player and that weird hyena from the Lion King.
It’s a source of pride and excitement. Her neighbor, another six year old girl, yanked her own top tooth out yesterday upon learning that Lyla had lost hers (I can’t even imagine the blood bath, because her tooth was not ready), presumably so that she could keep up with the ultimate tooth loss tally.
Why is tooth loss so enticing to children? In large part because of the Tooth Fairy, that mythical, mystical creature of childhood lore who likes baby teeth so much she breaks and enters kids’ houses in the middle of the night to steal them, leaving a small sum of money in exchange. Why does the tooth fairy want the teeth? Well, someone apparently told Lyla that the tooth fairy takes the teeth to make necklaces out of them.
I’m sorry, but can you say Silence of the Lambs? That is truly the stuff nightmares are made of.
So now my daughter, who will be part of our Nation’s voting electorate in less than twelve years, literally believes that a mystical fairy trespasses into inhabited dwellings, creeping up on sleeping children to steal their teeth to make jewelry out of them and sell them on the black market from her home in the sky. Lyla thinks her stolen baby teeth are hanging on a necklace somewhere that someone paid money for. She actually believes that.
Amazed by this phenomenon, and my own daughter’s blind excitement, I started researching the Tooth Fairy and how such a ridiculous fairytale came about. And I learned that the practice of honoring children’s lost baby teeth dates back to the Middle Ages. In early European times, people would bury their children’s baby teeth outside (talk about a modern-day crime scene). Early English culture suggested burning a child’s lost tooth as an effort to save the child from searching for them eternally in the afterlife (sounds more up my alley – get rid of those things!).
What’s even more mind-blowing is that not everyone perceives the Tooth Fairy to look like the quintessential fairy I always imagined. Children reportedly believe that the tooth fairy takes the form of a wide spectrum of figures, ranging from a pixie, to a dragon, to a flying ballerina, to two little old men, a dental hygienist, a potbellied flying man smoking a cigar, a bat, and others (horrific depictions italicized).
Um, I can count on one hand images more dreadful than a potbellied flying man smoking a cigar hovering over my child’s bed at night trying to reach under her pillow.
But again, children are just enraptured by the idea of the tooth fairy, in whatever form they perceive her (or him and his pot belly). And whatever the perception of the tooth fairy, she’s obviously here to stay as an emblem and iconic figure of early childhood.
There’s even data collected annually on how much American parents — I’m sorry, The Tooth Fairy—pay for dead baby teeth these days. Visa commissions an annual Tooth Fairy survey to track the average price of lost teeth in the U.S. (http://practicalmoneyskills.com/downloads/pdfs/ToothFairy_Survey_2015.pdf), helping inquisitive mothers like me who want to make sure they’re following the status quo.
In case you were wondering (I was) the going rate for the average lost American baby tooth was $3.19 in 2015, down 24 cents from 2014. 32 percent of responding parents left $1—the most popular amount. 20 percent of kids got 5 bucks per tooth. And…..wait for it…..5 percent of households responded that the tooth fairy left $20 or more per tooth. (Ok people, WHO ARE YOU? It’s a dead baby tooth and your kid is 6, let’s keep the expectations low! That would be $1,200.00 in baby teeth among my three kids.).
So after doing my due diligence and research, I decide to round up to $5, and I do that well-known Vietnam-crawl through Lyla’s room to make the famous dead-tooth/money swap without waking her up. And I go to throw her creepy little jagged tooth in the garbage and I can’t. I can’t do it. Even with my phobia of teeth, I can’t bring myself to throw it away.
And when I get back to bed, weird emotions hit me like a ton of bricks, as is often the case with parenting I’m coming to find out.
The fact that our small children believe so deeply and fearlessly in the ridiculous conception of a tooth fairy makes you realize how boundless their imaginations are, and how fleeting and ephemeral this adorable time is.
In just a few short years, Lyla’s now untethered imagination will be mired by cynicism and doubt. She won’t believe a gigantic bunny rabbit visits every house leaving eggs and chocolate. She won’t even believe in Santa. And she certainly won’t believe me when I tell her that her nose “literally grows” when she lies.
She will enter that preadolescent or adolescent phase where it’s more important to be part of the majority than to have an imagination that puts you in the minority. She will roll her eyes at me when I still leave cookies out for Santa and carrot sticks for his reindeer. She’ll turn beet red when I tell her all-important friends she used to scream and run and grab my leg when we would tell her that Pachafa (a mythical headless big foot type creature in Cajun folklore) was coming for her if she didn’t come inside off the trampoline.
The real-life heroes, princes and princesses in her life – her parents, and the other instrumental adults who help form her personality and ideals — she will realize that these people are fallible imperfect humans as well. Some will remain heroes, some won’t.
And although she will stop believing in fairies (winged, pot-bellied, cigar-toting or otherwise), hopefully, hopefully, she won’t stop believing in herself. Because right now, in her little mind, her potential is as vast and limitless as her imagination. She truly believes she can do anything she wants to do. Mermaid? Yep. One of those crazy psychos who swim with sharks on Shark Week? Sure! Crazed fairy who commits felonies for teeth? Absolutely. For her, it isn’t a question of limits – it’s a question of choice.
This time with our children – this beautiful limbo in between when they’re too little to carry interesting conversations, and when they’re too cool to even talk to us 90 percent of the time – it is truly irreplaceable. This precious time with our little jack-o-lantern, tooth-losing, freakish-looking kids will one day be gone. They’ll grow up, and we will long for the days when they would walk around losing these disgusting bony appendages, and we would have to come up with our own imaginative answers about what the tooth fairy does with them when she takes them.
So I retract my earlier comment about those crazy cash-happy tooth fairies who leave $20 or more per tooth. Go ahead, with your extravagant money-spending fairy selves, I’m serious.
Because these moments are nothing less than priceless.