My niece, who fled to Denmark after Trump won the 2016 election, proudly informed her extended family that her six-year-old son, Walter, had lost his first tooth—a rite of passage. In my best great aunt response, I asked her the going Tooth Fairy rate in Denmark. Her reply took me by surprise.
“More children with PDD-NOS, (Pervasive Development Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified) have trouble differentiating fact from fiction, so we stay away from unnecessary lying; there is no Tooth Fairy, and the kid (Walter) has expensive taste in toys.”
Her response triggered two reactions. My first was to ask myself what drove us to substitute celebrating the occasion—a first lost tooth—with the creation of the Tooth Fairy? My second was to recall a personal experience: introducing the Tooth Fairy to my g-d-grandson in Cambodia.
Without launching into a full-blown thesis on the origins and traditions of the Tooth Fairy, my research revealed that cultures throughout history have marked the time when a child loses a tooth. However, these rites were created for diverse reasons and in different ways.
In the U.S., the advent of the Tooth Fairy dates back only to 1927, and the giving of money is a uniquely American custom. In other cultures, it is more popular for a family to hand over the tooth to a mouse or a rat in the hope that the child’s adult teeth will be strong and sharp; or the parents hide it from witches who could use the tooth to control the child. In Spain, a mouse named Ratóncito Pérez is the equivalent of our Tooth Fairy.
Surveys show that the vast majority of Americans have positive feelings about the custom, and dentists promote it as a way to encourage healthy oral hygiene habits. One dentist I found on Google went so far as to suggest you tell your child that a healthy tooth will earn him or her more money from the Tooth Fairy than a decayed one.
On a visit to my g-d children in Phnom Penh, one of the young boys in the home, Sal Lee, lost his first tooth. Dentists back then, probably circa 1997, were scarce in Cambodia, and modern dentistry and dental hygiene were non-existent. I told Sal Lee about the Tooth Fairy and instructed him to put his tooth under his pillow, promising a visit from the magical creature. He did. That night, his father snuck in his room and exchanged a dollar’s worth of riels (four) for the tooth.
“Granma, Granma! She came! She brought me money!” He was so excited to have money to buy candy or a toy. Not only were there no Cambodian Tooth Fairies, but there was also no allowance or extra riels to spend for fun. This was a big deal for Sal Lee. I was quite pleased with myself for bringing such excitement to this little boy until . . .
Meng, his father, took me aside. “We have a problem,” he confided. “Sal Lee is planning to pull out all his teeth so that he can make more money.” It took a while, but with his father’s help, I convinced Sal Lee that the Tooth Fairy only left money for teeth that came out naturally—no riels were awarded for pulled teeth. I mollified him with a trip to the local toy shop.
Sal Lee has grown up and is studying to be a dentist. Maybe he has just found another way to make money from teeth.