The Chinese toss the tiny teeth onto roofs. Mexicans offer them to el raton, a gray mouse, and Swedes sweep them under the rug. If these rituals sound strange, how about the American custom: bartering with a nocturnal fairy?
The Tooth Fairy made her debut in the United States around the turn of the century, rooted in the belief in fairies imported by immigrants from Great Britain. But while unique, our custom is no fly-by-night. "Marking the loss of a tooth is a rite of passage that has been performed in practically all cultures for thousands of years," said Rosemary Wells, a former English professor and self-titled Tooth Fairy consultant. "It honors the change from babyhood into childhood and the age of responsibility."
But while other countries celebrate the loss of just the first tooth, Americans keep on giving, compensating children for all 20 baby teeth. Is good old American capitalism at work, or are we more indulgent with our children?
In a recent national poll, Dr. William Hartel, a St. Louis dentist, found that the average amount tucked under pillows in most American households is $1.75, up from $1 in 1990. The Tooth Fairy is equally generous to the well-off and the poor. Children from families with more than $60,000 in annual income got the same amount per tooth as those from families with incomes under $15,000. Baby teeth removed by a dentist seem to command a little more.
"The thing we learned is that the amount of money left keeps very close to the rate of inflation," Hartel said. "During the Depression years, the value of a tooth dropped a couple of pennies, to about 16 cents."
Having done the research, Hartel acknowledged that peer pressure is a factor in how much ends up tucked under the pillow. "Today, the first child in a class to lose a tooth sets the fair market price," he said.
Wells, who operates the Tooth Fairy Museum out of her Deerfield, Ill., home, believes the custom has endured because it helps both parent and child through a stressful situation, "the sociological change when the child shifts from home to school."
While not as commercial as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy has done well for herself in the marketing arena. There are dozens of Tooth Fairy-inspired children's books and a cottage industry of products, from pillows and tooth banks to porcelain and silver tooth boxes. In the museum are more than 500 pieces of Tooth Fairy memorabilia, including small boxes and bags and pillows to stash lost teeth in and a plastic tooth bank in the shape of a mouse. Visiting children have left hundreds of their drawings of the Tooth Fairy.
Sometimes the Tooth Fairy doesn't carry cash, preferring nonmonetary gifts. Recent young visitors to Wells' museum have received buttons, glass figurines and baseball cards. "Any item that is important to a child can be left by the Tooth Fairy," Wells said.
What about that most embarrassing of situations: when the Tooth Fairy somehow dozes off and fails to complete her duties? No problem, Wells said. "Tell the child that the Tooth Fairy couldn't make it to your neighborhood, but she will return the next night. The Tooth Fairy never fails to discharge her assignment."
If making up stories about winged spirits makes you uncomfortable, relax. Experts say magical fantasy figures help children cope with changes in their lives.
"A child who loses a tooth has to come to an understanding of what's going on, both practically in terms of chewing and psychologically in terms of the loss of part of the body," said Michael Schwartzman, a New York family psychologist and author of "The Anxious Parent" (Simon & Schuster, 1990). "It might be the first experience in which a child feels there could be something wrong with him. The Tooth Fairy is a warm, giving maternal figure that helps children accept and feel good about what's happened."
Part of the magic of the Tooth Fairy is her fairness. "A child might think that it's unfair that she lost a tooth," Schwartzman said. "The Tooth Fairy puts children's focus on what they are gaining, as opposed to what they have lost."
Saving baby teeth may seem quaint and sentimental, but it comes from a deep-rooted tradition. Our pagan ancestors believed that if they didn't keep Junior's teeth away from animals, his permanent teeth would grow in as fangs.