Gap-toothed kids smile all the way to the bank

Children: Part philanthropist, part therapist, Tooth Fairy's staying power keeps paying dividends.

March 31, 2002|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

The smiles on the faces of Andre Mackey and Nijala Bullock of Baltimore tell a tale: Yes, some front teeth are missing, but they've lost them happily.

Do they believe in the tooth fairy? You might as well ask if there's really a president, or a Congress, or a movie star named George Clooney. In the lives of 6-year-olds, those things are merely theoretical. They have the dollars to prove the tooth fairy's existence.

"She wanted me to get some more teeth," Andre explains and points to the newcomers rising from his gums. "Look there, the teeth came back."

Nijala isn't certain why the tooth fairy is so generous, but appreciates the $5 she's earned for each of the two baby teeth she's lost. "Maybe it's because she collects them," she speculates. "She gave me the money for good luck."

In the all-too-fleeting world of childhood fantasy, the tooth fairy still holds an exalted post. Although she is as commonly accepted across America as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, she has never been similarly exploited or commercialized.

The tooth fairy's past, her appearance, even her motivations are left to our collective imaginations. Not that writers haven't tried to pin her down -- more than a dozen children's books have been published on the subject in the past two decades -- but she defies such easy circumscription.

"The only competition in a popularity contest would have to come from Harry Potter and I think he would lose," says Aletha Kowitz, a retired librarian for the Chicago-based American Dental Association who has studied tooth fairy mythology. "I don't know anyone who gets money from Harry Potter."

Even at the Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry, Baltimore's paean to all things dental, the tooth fairy lays claim to some valuable real estate. Books about her line one wall, a display explains her legend -- and contrasting mythologies in other countries -- and an artist's rendering can be found down the hall.

"We had to address it," says Janis Fink Goldman, the museum's director of education. "Losing your baby teeth, that's a big deal for 6- and 7-year-olds."

The tooth fairy legend has become so common in the United States and Canada that museum visitors are often surprised to find that she's virtually unknown in much of the world. In many countries, children expect a mouse to take their baby teeth and leave a coin. In quite a few others, children throw their baby teeth on the roof of their house, expecting only a better quality tooth in return.

The late Rosemary Wells, a professor of English at Northwestern University in Chicago, hypothesized in a series of articles that America's tooth fairy probably originated with European myths of casting your baby tooth down a mouse hole and getting a stronger tooth -- symbolized by a coin -- in exchange.

Others have speculated that the American sensibility was to make the money-for-teeth exchange a child's introduction to capitalism. Produce something of value and you can expect to receive fair compensation.

According to Wells' research, the tooth fairy doesn't appear in American literature until the 1920s. Most likely, the myth didn't become commonplace until after World War II when prosperity allowed the indulgence, says Moira Smith, a folklore librarian at Indiana University.

"The tooth fairy appears to have no purpose other than as a rite of passage -- the losing of baby teeth," says Smith.

But child behaviorists say that purpose should not be taken lightly. The tooth fairy adds an element of fun to what might otherwise be a frightening experience for a child as young as 4--- the loss of a part of their bodies.

Dr. Winifred Booker, a pediatric dentist in Owings Mills, says she has seen the tooth fairy work her wonders many times.

"The children get a feeling they've lost something that belongs to them and that can be stressful," she says. "With the tooth fairy, they get the feeling that something will take the place of it immediately."

Dr. Booker says she's heard children receive up to $50 for a tooth (from a father who didn't have time to get to the bank and make change, she notes), but the most common amount is a dollar. That means the average child with 20 baby (also known as milk, primary or deciduous) teeth is walking around with $20 in equity.

Megan McCormack, a former dental hygienist, runs a Web site, www.toothfairy.org, that encourages children to write e-mails to the tooth fairy. Their most common messages? "What do you do with all the teeth?" "I don't think you left me enough money." And "I'm going to a friend's house tonight and I want you to know I'll be staying there."

"The saddest ones say, 'You didn't come last night,' " says McCormack, who lives in northern California. "I have to tell them to have their mom or dad call and remind me."

Of course, that still leaves the question, why does she collect the teeth anyway? In the children's book, The Tooth Fairy (Knopf, 1995), author Peter Collington suggests she collects them to make keys for a fairy-size piano.

Tom Paxton, the popular folk songwriter / performer, has a nobler theory. In The Story of the Tooth Fairy (Morrow Junior Books, 1996), he speculates that the tooth / coin exchange is part of a long-term effort to restore relations between fairies and humans.

Ultimately, however, the tooth fairy is "about reassurance," says Paxton, who lives in northern Virginia and has grandchildren who still firmly believe in the myth. "You may lose here, but you gain there. That's what it's all about."

[See Fairy, 2n]

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