Growing up, we didn’t do much in the way of, well, Santa, the Easter Bunny, etc. But there was one thing that remained sacred, and that was the tooth fairy. When I lost a tooth, come hell or high water, I knew there would be money under my pillow the following morning, and that went double the time I had to have a painful extraction1.
And the tooth fairy seriously shelled out at our house. This is what I found on my bedside table the morning after a lost tooth:
I can’t even remember what masterwork of verbal chicanery my father came up with to explain why he had a stash of my teeth in a drawer (“but, Joe, shouldn’t the tooth fairy have taken those?”) when I finally discovered them while rooting around for something. It took me years to accept the fact that there was no tooth fairy, and that in fact all that coin had come directly from my father.
Thanks to inflation, the tooth fairy’s -- or my father’s, if you insist -- payouts are actually worth a lot more now. And thanks to the fact that I couldn’t really spend them anywhere and was reluctant to sell or trade them because I thought they looked pretty, I still have all of them. It’s the only example in my life of money I’ve successfully saved, and the only reason I was successful is because I effectively couldn’t spend it. Go me.
It turns out that the tooth fairy is actually quite controversial, which I find kind of hilarious in a “oh how the world baffles me” kind of way. You see, Delta Dental has come up with a witty “Tooth Fairy Index” tracking financial trends through a survey of parents, determining how much they leave per tooth, and they’ve pegged it to the S&P 500. It all looks very official, and it’s kind of a funny look at how inflation acts on every level in society. I imagine there are similar looks at allowances, examining how economic trends affect what parents can afford to give their kids.
But apparently, some parents think their peers are leaving too much for lost teeth. Why, $20! That’s absurd! I suspect many of those same parents would be shocked and horrified by the idea that my father used to leave me troy ounces of silver, currently trading at around $28.50 a pop. Evidently $2 in coin is okay, but excess cash (or, I'm betting, a silver coin) is just lavish.
WADING INTO THE PARENTING WARS
And that leaves me with an oddly funny feeling. On the one hand, I think that allowances, tooth fairy payments, birthday money, and so forth can really underscore class and income inequality for kids, which really sucks. When you’re comparing notes with your peers and some of them are raking in way more than you, it can’t help but remind you that you’re poor; and when I was young, we were very poor. My dad’s stash of silver came from mysterious sources (like my godfather), and was in no way indicative of our overall financial situation.
So I can see why parents would push for a kind of basic standard, and would say that it should be kept pretty low, to avoid exaggerating the huge gulfs that exist between children who are lucky to nab 50 cents for a tooth versus those who are getting twenty bucks.
On the other hand, the kids making the big money from their allowances and the tooth fairy are also the ones going to private schools or attending public ones in totally different, wealthy districts, the districts the fifty cent tooth fairy can’t afford rent in.
And let's not pretend that kids aren't smart and observant. They're well aware of the class and income inequalities all around them and how much they suck, and the tooth fairy is only a small part of that picture.
Not being a parent, I’m always wary of treading on the extremely thin ice of the parenting world, but as a bystander, it seems like parents spend a lot of time judging each other and telling each other what to do. Everyone seems convinced that their parenting way is the right way and everyone else is doing it wrong, and they’re happy to provide ample advice and information on that very subject; regardless of class, culture, or other differences between people.
The tooth fairy, for those who choose to welcome her into their houses, sounds like an innocent and fun thing to do, and a way to celebrate the way your body changes as you grow up as well as mitigating the fear of losing teeth. I think many of us can remember when our first baby teeth loosened, the agonizing pleasure of poking and prodding at them and waiting for them to finally fall out, sometimes encouraging them by eating sticky things or tying string to them and pulling, and then marveling at that tiny little chunk of tooth smeared with blood, washing it up and making it all nice in preparation for...something.
Sometimes a fairy is just a fairy, in other words.
BARKING (BITING?) UP THE WRONG TREE
I don’t think I was permanently emotionally scarred by my rather bounteous gifts from the tooth fairy, any more than my best friend was scarred because the tooth fairy wasn’t quite so generous at her house. We both had far bigger things to deal with as kids, and those are the things that affect us as adults.
Fretting about how much the tooth fairy does or doesn’t give overlooks the larger picture. Like that 22% of children in the US live in households below the poverty level, which means that over one in five children lacks access to a lot of important opportunities. Given the intergenerational nature of poverty in the US, it’s likely those kids will also be poor as adults, no matter how much the tooth fairy leaves under their pillows -- if the tooth fairy can afford to leave anything at all.
Or that, according to the Pew Charitable Trust, 17 million kids in the US can’t access basic dental care. Most of those kids are, you guessed it, low-income, and living in disadvantaged communities. Despite outreach programs and other efforts, just 25% of kids account for 80% of dental disease in children. One of the reasons access to dental care for both adults and children in the US is getting worse is because of the systematic exclusion of dental coverage from health insurance plans, and from significant cuts to social programs that used to provide dental cover for people who couldn’t otherwise afford it.
But yes, by all means, let’s argue over how much is the correct amount for the tooth fairy to leave. Because that, surely, will address the systematic issues that run much deeper than a rite of childhood passage.
1. I’m a little bit bitter about this so I’m going to tell you the story even though it’s not really related at all to anything that’s going on in this post. Basically, when I was a wee thing freshly returned from the wilds of Greece, I got a horrifically rotten tooth, and my dad took me to an utterly incompetent dentist who decided I should get a root canal. On a baby tooth.
It was extremely traumatic, and it was even more so when my adult tooth grew in underneath but couldn’t come up because the baby tooth was basically cemented in place, so it grew out sideways, creating a festering, pus-filled, ghastly-smelling mess in my mouth.
Because I was so frightened of dentists after my childhood experience, it took a long time for my father to persuade me to go to the dentist to address the issue, at which point the (new) dentist shrieked in horror and insisted on extracting the tooth immediately. I, being a stubborn-headed little shit, refused novocaine, I think in some sort of perverse desire to one-up the dental profession. It was a poor life choice. Return