Every parent knows the drill. Kid loses tooth (usually in a dramatic 3-part episode building up to a bloody, dangling tooth hanging on by a thread before the parent steps in to put the tooth out of its misery). Kid quickly trades tears for excitement over an anticipated visit from the Tooth Fairy. Parent helps kid write a special note to Her Highness O’ Teeth and they place the tooth and note under kid’s pillow. The next morning, kid rejoices at his/her newfound riches, ditches the tooth, and lives happily ever after.
Having a six-year-old means we’re in the thick of the tooth-losing stage. We’ve effortlessly moved through the above steps seven times thus far. But tooth #8 proved to be a bit problematic. In short, Bailey lost her tooth and then actually LOST her tooth, so there was no evidence to leave for the Tooth Fairy. She was very concerned about this anomaly but I, in my infinite wisdom, assured her that a note explaining the situation would suffice and the Tooth Fairy would visit her anyway.
And then the Tooth Fairy, well, didn’t.
I gave her hope and then I, as the resident Cox family Tooth Fairy, forgot to carry through on my promise. Now, I’m not talking an “almost fail,” the kind where you’re bustling around the house in the morning, all of a sudden realize you forgot, and then gingerly tip-toe into the room as you try not to breath while you slide a dollar under the pillow seconds before the child wakes. Nope, I just plain forgot…like left for work when the kids were still sleeping and didn’t think about it until late in the afternoon. By this time, Bailey had long since discovered the untouched note and the absence of cash on her pillow.
The worst part was that it was my mistake alone. Jason didn’t know that I’d convinced Bailey to leave a note even though she did not have the tooth in her possession. I didn’t ask him to help me remember to find some money before we retreated to bed. And I felt terrible.
So what happens when human failure ruins a long-trusted childhood tradition? In Bailey’s case, I was able to save face by acting as stumped as she was and concluding that perhaps you really DO have to leave the actual tooth for the Tooth Fairy to visit. She was content to learn a valuable lesson that day about the way the Tooth Fairy operates. But, I might not have lucked out on the circumstances surrounding the loss and I know this would have prompted questions about why she didn’t come and if she really exists at all.
On the heels of this incident, I started thinking about why we choose to keep up the façade. I know plenty of parents who feel strongly that partaking in myth-based traditions is essentially lying to kids and serves as a fundamental breach of parent/child trust. Additionally, many Christian parents have concerns about Santa and the Easter Bunny overshadowing the true meaning behind the religious holidays or confusing kids about what’s real and what’s not in the “things I can’t see” category. Outside of religious considerations, some feel the story of the Tooth Fairy makes kids feel entitled to monetary gain in exchange for losing a tooth – over which they have absolutely no control – instead of teaching them that rewards come from an investment in hard work. Regardless of the motivation, many families bypass these childhood stories in favor of different traditions that are more relevant to their family mission.
While I can see valid points in each of these arguments, I’ve always felt that these myths are simple and innocent “coming of age” practices. I believe that these stories can co-exist with both Christian beliefs and good solid parenting and feel confident in my ability to talk about myths and magical traditions in a far different way than I talk about aspects of our religious faith. We have the reinforcement of weekly visits to church and daily conversations about the role of God in their lives whereas references to Santa, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny are few and far between if not simply once a year as the holiday approaches.
As for the concern about lying, I’ve never seen this create long-term problems but I don’t doubt this could be the case for some children. I grew up with these traditions and know I found out they weren’t real at some point. I don’t remember how old I was but know for certain I wasn’t angry with my parents nor did I harbor feelings of betrayal. In fact, I remember trying very hard to carry on the tradition with my younger brothers and working in tandem with my mom to keep the magic alive as long as possible. I think we all saw these practices as ways to preserve the simpler aspects of childhood before the all-too-soon day when the cruel world would inevitably take control.
My gut says that it all comes down to age appropriateness. It’s appropriate for a four-year-old to believe in Santa, just as it’s appropriate for a 12-year-old not to. The problem is I know how to enjoy and manage the magic while the kids are in the believing stage, but I’m not entirely prepared to answer the tough questions when they start to realize something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Do I go with the “When you stop believing, they won’t visit anymore.” response to expressed doubts? Do I take the therapeutic approach of “Well, what do YOU think?” when asked point-blank? Or, do I go with complete disclosure about our role all these years?
If I had to predict the future, I’d say that I will probably be up front when asked about what’s real and what’s not. When I look at my beautiful, intelligent daughter experience the wonder of a visit from the tooth fairy (or Santa or the Easter Bunny), I feel confident that these practices do play a significant role in my expectation of what being a kid is all about. I desperately hope she will continue to believe without questioning and without rationalizing for as long as possible. However, given the Tooth Fairy’s recent absent-mindedness, I think I should go ahead and work on my full disclosure speech.
What are your thoughts and experiences and how have you handled these issues with your children?