For some of us, a waking child catches us blindly navigating under their pillow with tooth in one hand and a dollar in the other. Or perhaps it is the result of a morning spent in tears as we fail at convincing our child of the logistical explanations for why Ms. Tooth Fairy couldn’t make it to our house last night. And yet for the lucky ones who have perfected our Tooth Fairy ninja skills, consistently manage to set our reminder alarms, and always have correct change, reality eventually creeps in and steals a child’s fanciful notions of a tooth-hauling pixie fairy fluttering from house to house leaving nothing but shiny coins and trails of glitter in her wake. But regardless of how it happens, we all know it will happen; surely I’m not the only parent who has feared the backlash that comes when the truth is eventually exposed and our sweet little babes discover that we’ve been lying to them.
Without delving into an ethical debate over the pros and cons of telling white lies to kids, I trust we all agree that the important thing is to maintain trust with our children. Unfortunately, when they eventually learn that the Tooth Fairy (or Santa and the Easter Bunny for that matter) are in fact, just Mom and Dad in disguise, it can often lead to feelings of resentment, anger, disappointment and in the worst cases, a breakdown in the trust between child and parent.
But is there a way to make the discovery a positive one? A way that could leave our child feeling like they have “outsmarted” the system rather than being outsmarted themselves? What if there was a way to elicit a response of “wow, that’s kind of sad — but how cool, now I’m in the know!” instead of “how could you make me feel so stupid for believing this! I thought you were my safe place!”. I think there is.
Last month, our son Jack lost a tooth. After the usual rigmarole of taunting, motivating, and convincing him that pulling it out would feel much better than letting it dangle there for another night, the deed was finally done. Then came my customary response of deciding if I needed to make a late-night run to the store for change and setting my iPhone alarm to go off a few hours after the kids were fast asleep. Later that night, with the tooth extraction complete, my husband and I settled into bed wondering how many more teeth would be lost before our boys clued in to the game. Apparently we spoke too soon. The very next morning, after depositing his Tooth Fairy funds in his piggy bank, Jack chatted with his 8-year-old twin brother Liam and the topic of the Tooth Fairy came up.
“It’s a bit weird, isn’t it?” asked Liam, our analytical over-thinker. “I mean, it just doesn’t seem right. What does she do with the teeth? And how does someone so small carry so many?” Liam’s pensive introspection didn’t seem to phase Jack. It was clear this was something he had thought of as well. After a few seconds of pondering, Jack looked up at me and with a bit of trepidation, says, “Mom? I think that you’re the Tooth Fairy.”
I paused, trying not to look like a deer caught in the headlights, and replied with my best noncommittal politician response in an attempt to evade the question. But they weren’t buying it. After a few moments, they finally came right out and asked point-blank, “Mom, are you the Tooth Fairy? Tell us the truth.” I knew the game was up. Trying to avoid it would morph my little white lie into a bold-faced black one. I stopped what I was doing in the kitchen and with the body language of a spy who was about to divulge international secrets, sat down at the table across from them. Looking from side to side, I leaned in close and in a hushed whisper said, “Okay boys, what I’m about to tell you is top secret information! In fact, it’s so top secret that only adults know about it. But now I know you’re old enough to be a part of the secret so listen up! Yes, I am the Tooth Fairy. Every Mom and Dad is. It’s a magical game that all adults play to make being a kid even more fun! But listen, now that you are a part of the adult team, you have to guard the secret, too! Can I trust you to be a part of our team and keep the secret safe?” The boys looked at me wide-eyed, a mixture of sadness and excitement bouncing around in their heads. I suddenly saw Jack blinking away tears and asked him if he was sad to find out the truth. To my surprise, he shook his head and told me that they were “happy tears” and that he was actually a bit relieved to find out. He explained that believing in a little fairy that collects teeth was a bit weird and learning the truth made him feel better inside. I could tell the misty eyes were coming from a place of excitement and relief. Liam, our stoic one, wasn’t tearing up but I could tell he was processing it all. In his analytical way, his first question was “so do you have all my teeth?”.
Fellow mothers: let me take this opportunity to say that when your husband suggests that you keep all the little baby teeth you collect over the years, listen to him. Do not ignore him as you scoff at the grossness of keeping bloody little teeth and hide them at the bottom of the trash bag. Just keep them! On that note, there are only a few parenting moments in my life where I have felt like a real dirt bag — confessing to Liam that I threw away all his teeth was one of them. Lesson learned. Tooth archiving aside, the boys handled the news very well. Instead of feeling like they had been betrayed, they felt special to now be a part of the big secret. In the weeks to follow, I cringed each time Santa came up in conversation, fearing that their newfound knowledge would expose the even bigger con: the magical fat man who fits down chimneys and has flying reindeer. Thankfully, it looks like I have at least one more year of fanciful childhood imagination as the boys expressed no doubt in Santa’s existence. So until the day comes that they’re ready to join the Santa secret, I will cling to the beautiful sliver of childhood innocence that remains and simply let them believe.