The Truth About the Tooth Fairy

For centuries, many different cultures around the world have had various superstitions and rituals surrounding the phenomenon of losing baby teeth. Early European traditions had people bury their child’s baby teeth, which they believed would prevent their child from having hardships later in life. Some Viking traditions involved carrying around baby teeth as a form of good luck in battle and during travels. Superstitions and rituals about baby teeth have been around for centuries. However, the act of putting a tooth under the pillow and waking to find a sum of money left by the “tooth fairy” is a fairly new practice, and is native to the United States.

With such diverse rituals for baby teeth around the world, it’s no wonder that the United States, a cultural melting pot, would form an amalgamation from a variety of different beliefs to create the tooth fairy children know and adore today. In an article by Colin Schultz for Smartnews, he said the origin of the tooth fairy begins with a mouse.

The ritual of offering a lost baby tooth to a mouse or a rat is one of the most widely practiced, according to Schultz. There are records of this ritual from many different countries, including New Zealand, Russia, Mexico, Peru and many others. People would offer the tooth to the mouse or rat with the hope that the practice would help the child’s adult teeth grow in as strong as the rodent’s, considering how strong rodent teeth usually are. People no longer sacrifice their children’s teeth for this purpose, but the superstition later developed to children leaving their baby teeth out in the hopes that a mouse would take them and leave behind some money or a gift in exchange. The tradition developed even further to children leaving the tooth under their pillow and getting a gift underneath it when they woke up.

The fairy part of the tradition came from a mixture of European beliefs and the famous Walt Disney himself. Fairies were a common element in many different European tales and stories, one of which eventually moved to the United States as the tooth fairy. Schultz said when the tooth fairy was being introduced in the United States, Disney had released two animated films featuring fairies in major roles, Pinocchio and Cinderella. Thus, pop culture of that time and years of various traditions from around the world helped to create the ideas of the tooth fairy children have come to know. Those ideas continue to develop today, as movies such as Rise of the Guardians and The Tooth Fairy continue to shape how children view the tooth fairy.

Despite the joy and wonder children experience in their belief of the tooth fairy, all children eventually learn the truth about her, as they do about the existence of Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny too. The tooth fairy is simply a tradition that is upheld by a child’s parents. And, like there are differences in the traditions of the Easter Bunny and Santa among different families, there are differences in the way families use the tooth fairy too.

One of the biggest discrepancies in the tooth fairy tradition lies in the amount of money a child receives from his or her parents. In an SSRS Spotlight Poll conducted on the amount of money children should receive from the tooth fairy, they offered participants a variety of options for what they give their children when they lose a tooth. Most participants stayed within $1 to $5, but some said they gave their children $10 or more per tooth.

This vast increase in amounts is something that was practically unheard of in Megan Blanchard’s childhood. She grew up and lost her baby teeth sometime between the late ’70s and early ’80s. Blanchard said she was lucky to get a quarter from her mom for a tooth. When she had children of her own, she gave them each a dollar per tooth. Nowadays the majority of parents opt to give their children $1, which has become the traditional norm for the tooth fairy.

Children lose 20 baby teeth during their adolescence, so if a parent were to give their child today’s standard of $1 per tooth, that would amount to $20 total. However, the parents that give their child $10 or more will end up giving $200 or more overall to their child, simply for losing their baby teeth.

As shown in this map and chart of the data presented by SSRS, the results were unsurprising, with the majority of parents opting to give their children $1 or less for their teeth and the numbers going down the higher the sum of money goes. This was the same across all ranges of income, with nearly half of the respondents giving their children $1 or less. This fact was one of the most surprising to find in the data, as there was expected to be a correlation between the amount of money a parent gives their child for their teeth and the amount of income they have for their household.

Each category of income followed roughly the same pattern for the distribution of money given to their children from the tooth fairy. All categories had over 43% of their respondents give $1 or less to their children. Between 36% and 40% gave their children $2 to $5. Between 5% and 9% gave their children $6 to $10. Between 3% and 6% gave their children more than $10. Between 3% and 7% didn’t give their children any money or didn’t believe in the tooth fairy. And less than 3% gave their children prizes or candy instead of money.

But what is the purpose of the tooth fairy? Why should we continue this tradition of practically buying our children’s teeth from them? Despite the superstitious origins of the tale, some are continuing the tradition of the tooth fairy to support good dental hygiene, similarly to Santa’s tradition of leaving coal in a naughty child’s stocking to convince children to be nice to one another. Many different traditions exist when it comes to the tooth fairy.

Natalie Wheeler said she and her brother had a very traditional tooth fairy experience. She or her brother would lose a baby tooth, put the lost tooth under their pillows and wake up the next morning to a crisp dollar underneath. Wheeler said her father always made sure to go to the bank whenever one of his children had a loose tooth to make sure he had physical dollar bills to put under their pillows to continue the tradition.

Wheeler said on one occasion, her brother had recently lost a baby tooth and she was jealous that she wouldn’t be getting a dollar for one as well. She said she had one tooth that was slightly loose, but nowhere near falling out. She was very determined to get a dollar from the tooth fairy, just like her brother. So, Wheeler went to the bathroom and pulled and pulled at the tooth until it popped out. She said she then went to show her father, grinning as she showed off the gap where her baby tooth once was. Her father wasn’t expecting her to have a lost tooth already and didn’t have any cash on him that night to give her. Instead of telling his daughter this, he waited until she had gone to sleep and took a dollar out of Wheeler’s own wallet to place under her pillow. Wheeler said she was just excited that she had gotten her own dollar back.

Jose Rodriguez and his family moved to the United States from Lima, Peru, when he was a young child. His father, a Baptist priest, never had his children participate in the traditions of the tooth fairy once they moved to the U.S. Instead, Rodriguez’s family had a tradition similar to the traditions of his home country.

Rodriguez said in Peru they didn’t have the tooth fairy, but children believed if they put their lost tooth under their pillow, a mouse would leave money and collect the tooth. Of course, this was usually the parents’ doing, but it was a fun tradition for parent and child alike. Rodriguez said his father never let them believe the mouse was real, but he would still jokingly follow the tradition whenever Rodriguez or his siblings lost a baby tooth.

Occasionally, Rodriguez’s father would add a fun twist to this tradition. Rodriguez said sometimes when he lost a baby tooth, he would put the tooth under his pillow and fall asleep like any other night. When he woke the next morning, he would find a dollar and a computer mouse sitting next to his pillow, a fun little joke about the tradition from their home country.

“I loved it a lot,” Rodriguez said.

Juan Pablo, a KSU student originally from Columbia, said his family had a similar tooth tradition. His family had “el raton Perez” or “the rat Perez.” The tradition was very similar to the mouse tradition of Rodriguez’s home country of Peru. Pablo said the rat would leave money under a child’s pillow just like the American tooth fairy, but the amount of money would vary. Pablo said this was because the rat would leave whatever it thought was fair for the tooth.

“Sometimes I got as much as $5,” Pablo said. “Apparently I had really good molars.”

KSU student Mariah Griffith said her mother took a completely different approach to the traditional tooth fairy. When she and her siblings were growing up, they would receive the standard $1 under their pillow for their baby teeth. Her mother made sure they knew they wouldn’t get any money for teeth that were damaged, such as teeth with fillings or cavities.

“If we had a filling, we didn’t get money for the tooth.” Griffith said.

Griffith and her younger siblings were aware the tooth fairy didn’t exist from a young age, thanks to Griffith’s older brother telling them all the truth when their parent’s told him. Because her children were aware that it was their parent’s giving them the money, Griffith’s mother phrased her rule as the tooth already being paid for because of the cost from the silver in the filling.

Withholding just the $1 they would have received for their damaged tooth seemed to work, and Griffith and her siblings tried very hard to keep from getting cavities so they would still get money.

Eshin Griffith, Mariah’s older brother, did say their diligence for keeping their teeth clean faded once their tooth fairy days were over when their permanent teeth came in, however. Without the incentive of money to make them take care of their teeth, they were less willing to practice good dental hygiene once all their permanent teeth came in.

Hallmark Dental, in their blog post about the tooth fairy, discussed a variety of different ways parents can use the tradition of the tooth fairy to convince their children to take better care of their teeth.

The first involves writing a letter to a child from the tooth fairy. In the letter, the parents are supposed to encourage their child to brush their teeth correctly and floss to practice good dental hygiene. The letter can be very exciting for the child to receive, as it’s said to be from the famous tooth fairy herself. The child can also be encouraged to write letters back to the tooth fairy to keep up their interest in taking care of their teeth.

Hallmark Dental also takes a similar approach to Mariah Griffith’s mother, saying a parent could remind their child through a letter from the tooth fairy that teeth lost from not brushing or teeth that are damaged from cavities don’t count.

Hallmark Dental also suggests parents include their child’s dentist in encouraging dental hygiene through the tooth fairy. A parent can give the child’s dentist a special box or pillow to hold their baby teeth and ask the dentist to give the gift to their child, saying it is from the tooth fairy. The parent can also include another letter from the tooth fairy, this time saying that the dentist will tell the tooth fairy if the child is taking good care of his or her teeth or not. Overall, it seems that letting a child talk to the tooth fairy can inspire them to take better care of their teeth.

The tradition of the tooth fairy and other tooth related rituals have been around for centuries, shifting and adapting to our current culture. What started with a simple mouse and a few inspirations from European tales and Disney movies has grown into an exciting tradition for parents and children to celebrate the growth of their adult teeth as they mature and grow. The tooth fairy will continue giving children gifts and money for their lost baby teeth as long as parents continue the tradition. But instead of just giving a child a prize or money for their lost tooth, why not use the tooth fairy tradition as a way to encourage your child’s dental health too?

I am a Journalism graduate from Kennesaw State University.

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