My 6-year-old son lost his first baby tooth last month.
My husband and I had never really talked to him about the tooth fairy — he’s our oldest, so it was the first lost tooth for us too. But later that night, he asked if she was real and if she would be making an appearance while he was sleeping. Just like when he asked about Santa Claus, we put the ball in his court.
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“Well, do you think the tooth fairy is real, buddy?”
He considered it. “I guess… maybe she could be.”
“OK. Do you think she’ll come tonight to collect your tooth and leave you something?”
“Yeah, I think so,” he said. “If I put it under my pillow.”
We left it at that — if he wanted to believe in the tooth fairy, he could. We found a small container for him to put his tooth in and he tucked it inside his pillowcase like we suggested (so it could be easily found by — ahem — whomever was collecting it).
Later that night, I snuck into his room and replaced the tooth with a quarter. It felt sweetly nostalgic. I remembered the thrill of waking up in the morning to find that cool, shiny metal coin under my pillow instead of a strange-looking little tooth. I remembered hoarding the coin away in my piggy bank, shaking up the change inside and trying to guess how much money had accumulated. I remembered wiggling my other semi-loose teeth around, thinking of the candy bar or pack of gum I could buy once a few more teeth fell out.
One quarter for one tooth. I never even considered another amount. And when my son woke up the next day, he was undeniably pleased.
“Mommy! Look what the tooth fairy brought me!” he shouted, smiling broadly and flashing the new gap between his teeth. He kept the quarter with him during breakfast, then put it away in his savings box.
“That was easy,” I thought. No drama. No fuss. I didn’t have to worry about scrambling every time he lost a tooth, because I always had quarters around. This phase of life wouldn’t make much of a dent in my sanity or my wallet.
It wasn’t until days later that the doubt crept in. A family member gave him a dollar for the lost tooth, and my son looked at it strangely, like he had no idea his tooth could be worth a dollar. My mother teased me kindly. “You’re just like your grandmother,” she said. “A quarter was her going rate too.”
Suddenly, it seemed like stories about what and how much the tooth fairy should hand out for lost teeth were everywhere. Facebook friends debated whether the monetary amount — whatever it was — should be accompanied by a small token or gift. A radio disc jockey joked about frantically searching for a $10 bill at 4 a.m. on his way to work, coming up short with only $3 in singles and bracing for his son’s disappointment. A friend of the family who worked as a teacher said some of her students reported receiving $20 every time one of their baby teeth fell out.
I thought, “$20?! Are you kidding?”
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I don’t want to turn this into a debate about how much money is appropriate for a make-believe fairy to give a kid for his or her baby teeth. Obviously, there are no set rules when the person giving out the money doesn’t even exist. Generally, I try to remember that all families are different; as long as someone’s parenting affects only them and their children, it really isn’t my place to interject my opinion.
But $20? Is that really the expectation in 2017? I must be especially old-fashioned, because that seems seriously overpriced. Most kids are going to lose 20 baby teeth during their childhood. That’s $400 total. There’s no way that my son’s mouthful of tiny yellow teeth is worth $400. He isn’t even doing anything to earn the money, like getting good grades or completing chores. The teeth will literally be falling out of his mouth with no effort on his part at all.
Plus, we have three kids. I’m not prepared, financially or otherwise, to spend $1,200 over the next several years for this mostly insignificant rite of childhood passage.
Maybe it’s me. Maybe I forgot to adjust for inflation. It has been about 25 years since I was first visited by the tooth fairy. But even $5 or $10 feels steep to me. It also feels weirdly impersonal, like the tooth fairy is just an invisible ATM machine, pulling paper bills out of a mechanical drawer in some kind of formal transaction. Where’s the magic in that?
Right: the magic. That’s exactly what I was trying to cling to when I gave my son a quarter for his tooth: a little magic. It was the magic that I had remembered from when I was a kid — the feeling of discovering those silver coins underneath my pillow at dawn and dropping them, one by one, into my piggy bank. The mystery of one thing magically transforming into another.
When my son decided that, yes, he did believe the tooth fairy was going to come while he was sleeping to take away his baby tooth and replace it with something else, I was excited to present him with a small token in exchange for his belief. It wasn’t about the money. It was about the magic of being a kid. Saying yes to things you don’t fully understand. Choosing to put a little faith in someone you’ve never met. Finding that a thorny little tooth can turn into something new and exciting overnight if you believe in it hard enough.
I don’t care how much people give their kids when their baby teeth fall out. Every family lives with their own budget, philosophies and expectations. But I won’t be going broke over my tooth fairy role-playing, especially when my son looked at that single quarter as if it were one of the best surprises in the world.
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I will admit, though, that the next time he loses a tooth, I might give him a little more than 25 cents. Maybe next time, I’ll give him one whole dollar. But only in quarters, because you can’t hear paper bills jingling inside a piggy bank, and where’s the magic in that?
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