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The tooth fairy economy, explained

What’s the going rate for a kid’s tooth?

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When Lydia’s daughter began losing her baby teeth, Lydia decided that instead of dollar bills, she’d leave gold dollar coins under her pillow — three coins per tooth. That seemed like a touch of tooth fairy whimsy that wouldn’t be too much work. But after a few years of this tradition, when her daughter got a loose tooth at Disneyland, Lydia panicked. Their family was staying on the resort; it was after banking hours. “We asked every vendor, shopkeeper, and hotel desk person at the place if they had even one of those gold coins,” Lydia recalls, “and the answer across the board was no.”

Fortunately, the loose tooth dangled until the family got home and the tooth fairy could run to the bank. But for a few hours, Lydia was afraid a currency mix-up might give the game away.

Lydia’s level of commitment is impressive, but not out of the ordinary. American parents put a lot of time, effort, and, of course, money into convincing children the Tooth Fairy is real. In 1998, Delta Dental, the largest dental insurer in the US, began conducting an annual nationwide poll to determine how much money children received from the tooth fairy. The first year of the poll recorded the average per-tooth compensation at $1.30. This year, the Original Tooth Fairy Poll, conducted by Kelton Global on behalf of Delta Dental, collected data from a nationally representative sample of 1,058. The results indicated that the tooth fairy leaves an average of $3.70 per tooth in the US, declining for the second year in a row after peaking above $4.50 in 2017.

Although the price of a tooth has risen faster than inflation since 1998, the average under-the-pillow payout is a fairly reliable indicator of the S&P 500, the index most financial experts use to track the health of the US economy and stock market. NPR’s Planet Money theorizes that the increase in tooth price over inflation is because when funds are more available, spending tends to increase disproportionately in the areas that people value most, such as creating treasured memories for one’s children.

Delta doesn’t track which parent in two-parent households is most often responsible for tooth compensation, but it seems reasonable to assume that, like most of the mental work — noticing, remembering, planning — of parenting, this job is disproportionately handled by mothers. When I asked around for tooth-related anecdotes, almost everyone who responded was a woman. And while Delta reports that the tooth fairy tradition is a source of joy in more than half the families surveyed, many parents say it’s also a source of stress — not just the cumulative financial investment but also the pressure to create magical childhood memories overnight, again and again.

How did the tooth fairy tradition begin?

Although cultures around the world have traditions for marking a child’s lost tooth, the tooth fairy is a relatively recent and specifically American myth. Various peoples from Asia to Central America have a practice of leaving a lost tooth as an offering for some kind of animal in exchange for a healthy new one. Historians believe the American tooth fairy may have been inspired by this tradition, combined with European folklore about good fairies giving gifts or granting wishes.

While the earliest written reference to the tooth fairy is from a children’s play of the same name in 1927, the character didn’t achieve ubiquity until the mid-20th century, assisted, according to folklorist Tad Tuleja, by a thriving economy, a renewed romanticization of childhood, and the popularity of good fairies in the media (such as Disney movies).

The Tooth Fairy Poll indicates that in many families, the first tooth a child loses is a cause for special celebration and special remuneration; the average payout for that tooth is $4.96. But for some parents, going to great lengths to celebrate the milestone loss creates expectations that may be difficult to meet in the future.

The tooth fairy doesn’t require as much elaborate setup as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, but she’s a much more frequent visitor, at least during the years between ages 6 and 12, when baby teeth are lost and adult teeth grow in. Parenting expert Susan Newman, author of Little Things Long Remembered, says that traditions like the tooth fairy can contribute to the lasting strength of a parent-child bond. “What you’re doing is building a child’s memory bank with warm recollections of growing up,” she explains.

But she also cautions against getting too caught up in the social media-fueled rush to go over the top at all times: “My main message to parents is whatever expectations you have, lower them.” Parents can have fun being creative with their tooth fairy routines, but the self-imposed pressure to go above and beyond the classic dollar under the pillow is part of a larger pattern of overwhelming parenting expectations. The impetus to curate a perfect, magical childhood (with the corresponding “or else” implied) means that parents are always striving to outdo each other or themselves, with no room to relax.

For parents of more than one child, the tooth fairy years can stretch on interminably, but even only children can demand a lot of energy. It can be a short journey from children losing teeth to parents losing their grip.

Gina, whose daughter is now in college, remembers, “I really screwed myself by writing a note from the tooth fairy the first time.” Delta Dental encourages this tradition, even providing a template tooth fairy letter with reminders to brush regularly and avoid sugar. But what seems like a cute, magical touch on the first tooth can become onerous by the fourth — or 14th. “It was the bane of our existence,” says Gina. “My daughter never forgot!”

Katrina gives her 6- and 8-year-olds an almost retro dollar per tooth, but she origamis the dollar bills into different shapes each time, like a rabbit when her eldest lost a tooth close to Easter. Her kids love it, and remember specific dollar animals long after the tooth fairy has come and gone, but she sometimes wishes she hadn’t yoked herself to such a labor-intensive tradition — especially “at 10 pm as I’m wrestling with a crummy dollar,” she says. Still, Katrina plans to continue the origami art for her youngest child, now 3.

When Risa’s son lost a tooth on a family trip to Maine, she forgot about the tooth fairy in all the extra demands of traveling. She explained the missed pickup with an improvised story about Maine’s local tooth collector, the “tooth lobster,” adding that “because he lost his tooth so late in the day, the tooth fairy hadn’t had a chance to let the tooth lobster know that we were in town.” The next night she replaced his tooth with the appropriate payment, along with a note from the lobster and a sprinkling of seaweed.

What’s the point of the tooth fairy?

The tooth fairy has grown from a character in a minor, otherwise forgotten play to a nationwide mascot of childhood delight as well as dental health. But why? What does the tooth fairy want with our children’s teeth, and what do we want with her?

Baby teeth are a unique commodity in that supply and demand are always, somehow, perfectly balanced; the tooth fairy buys exactly as many as are available. Parents have come up with all sorts of explanations over the years for what she does with them. As you might expect from a children’s story about deciduous body parts, these accounts are a strange mix of whimsical and grotesque.

Some parents (and dentists) use the tooth fairy to encourage good dental habits in children. A common addition to the mythology is that the fairy only wants teeth in excellent condition, and pays out less for teeth with cavities, although I’ve yet to hear of her actually rejecting any teeth. (Some parents also tell children the tooth fairy can’t navigate a messy room to deliver her payment.) Delta Dental’s version of the character is along these lines, reminding children that “I only use the cleanest, healthiest teeth to build my pearly white palace.”

In addition to building materials, some homespun stories have the fairy using discarded teeth for piano keys, or placing them in the mouths of newborn babies. Others say the fairy needs the teeth for scientific research — and indeed, scientists at Washington University asked children to send in their lost baby teeth throughout the 1960s for a study on strontium-90 levels and cancer risks. Participants received a button announcing “I Gave My Tooth to Science.”

Tuleja suggested that the tooth fairy’s purpose is to teach children about “monetization and the free market,” but she may address a deeper need as well. Losing baby teeth can be stressful, the formerly strong and dependable body part becoming unstable and then falling out altogether. Rosemary Wells, the founder and curator of the now-defunct Tooth Fairy Museum, thought that belief in a magical being who needed those teeth for her own puckish reasons served to comfort children.

Of course, not all kids find the idea of a tooth-collecting pixie endearing. Rachel’s daughters write notes to the tooth fairy asking her to leave their teeth behind, along with the coin she gives them. “They usually keep them in a little special box,” says Rachel, “but I have found them in various places around the house.”

Some families are abandoning the tooth fairy altogether

In the era of intensive parenting, parents have to let some things fall by the wayside for the sake of their own sanity. Some families, whether out of financial strictures or simple lack of interest, are giving up the tooth fairy tradition or not introducing it at all.

Emily had difficulty remembering to leave payments, and it didn’t help that she was pregnant — and nauseated — at the same time her oldest child began losing teeth. “Even when my kid was just wiggling her tooth, it made me want to throw up,” she says. “I finally gave up.” Emily’s youngest is now approaching the age of tooth loss, and Emily says she probably won’t do the tooth fairy with her at all.

Sara’s son had to have his two front teeth pulled when he was 4 years old. “It was kind of nasty and traumatic for us, so the tooth fairy didn’t even enter my mind,” she says. After that experience, ceremonializing future lost teeth seemed unnecessary.

Holly marked her 7-year-old son’s first lost tooth with an outing to the beach, and she plans to let him choose small treats or family activities for future teeth. “It’s a family celebration of a milestone, which feels more natural to me,” she says.

Still, as much stress and frustration as the tooth fairy can cause, many families continue working hard to keep the belief alive. Today, you can even download apps that add the fairy to photographs as proof for skeptical children, or call her and leave a voicemail. If Tad Tuleja was right that the tooth fairy exists to teach kids about capitalism, there are plenty of adults learning from her example as well. But monetizing childhood magic isn’t all the fairy does. Parents don’t have to go completely over the top to create unique tooth fairy memories for their children.

Meredith forgot to switch her daughter’s teeth for money on more than one occasion, but instead of confessing the sprite was a myth, she told her that their tooth fairy was an underperformer at work.

“I would have to pretend to be disappointed and tell her that I would email the tooth fairy’s supervisor,” she remembers. “After it happened a couple of times, she would just say, ‘Mom, you need to email them again about the tooth fairy.’”

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