Baby Teeth, The Value of

Losing your baby teeth is a rite of passage, and it is a testament to the human condition that we take this experience in stride, given that it is, on its face, horrifying. SMALL BONES ARE FALLING OUT OF YOUR FACE, while other, larger bones lying dormant in your jaw push through your flesh to replace them. How is that a thing? How is that a normal thing?

Honestly, I could talk about the sheer insanity of the human body all day, but we’re getting off track.

Losing teeth is a physical reality, but adults create a fantasy structure around the process to…do what, exactly? Add an element of magic and whimsy to childhood? Revel in the absurdities children of a certain age will believe in? And why, exactly, would a child who knows that the Tooth Fairy is not real grow up to be a parent who perpetuates the myth?

The Tooth Fairy. For me, even as a child, the Tooth Fairy seemed a particularly nonsensical entity. Why take teeth? Why leave money? Why the facade of fairy at all–I would have been just as likely to believe that my teeth turned into money through some kind of pillow-triggered alchemy.

We (meaning “humans”) build relationships through shared experience. Each family has its own stories and traditions, but the Tooth Fairy enforces the relationships among people within the cultures that go through that shared ritual. Even if you, as a parent, decide to forgo the trappings of the Tooth Fairy in your family, your child will come home from school one day with the learned story from her friends, and no amount of rational explanation will be enough to justify why Jeremy got $5 for a lost tooth and she didn’t.

Of course, each child will interpret these childhood myths in her own way. I once worked with a guy who, until he was in college, did not believe in reindeer. When he was a boy and found out that Santa Claus wasn’t real, he lumped reindeer in with the sled and the elves and the North Pole workshop–if Santa wasn’t real, then none of it was. His friends had to drive him out to a reindeer farm to prove to him that they existed.

Hogfather is a book about children and belief and the value of that belief. Without belief in the Hogfather, the sun will not rise. Believing in things like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy prepare us, as Death says, to believe in the greater myths of Truth and Mercy.

Like the current incarnation of Santa Claus, the modern incarnation of the Tooth Fairy is cheery packaging over an older tradition that no longer matches with our modern sensibilities.

Early Norse records include references to a “tooth-fee” (thanks, Wikipedia!), where a child’s first lost tooth was exchanged for money. Other practices included burning or burying a child’s lost teeth to protect her. In Northern European cultures, the loss of baby teeth is marked by this kind of small ceremony. You don’t just leave lost teeth lying around–they’re special. They have power.

These are the traditions that Pratchett plays off of in Hogfather, combining the childish trappings of the Tooth Fairy’s realm with the darker magic at the heart of Teatime’s plan. I would argue that there is a metaphor to be found in the role of the tooth-money exchange and its relationship to belief.

Children do not only go through a physical transition into adulthood, but also a cognitive one. There are all sorts of studies about how children think and how that thinking changes as they age. Infants can’t recognize themselves in a mirror—“Theory of Mind” refers to the cognitive development a child goes through to understand that she is an individual mind, and, importantly, that other people have their own individual minds that are not the same as hers.

Although the rate Theory of Mind development varies across individual children and across culture, the process of that development takes place in the same order. In Western studies, the last big changes in this development take place between third and fifth grade (ages 7 to 10).

Which, interestingly, is around when children lose their baby teeth.

In the absence of revelation from an older sibling or schoolmate, children will “grow out” of believing in childhood myths. They simply are no longer capable of thinking in the way that they did when they were younger. The exchange of teeth for money is a cultural metaphor of the exchange of a child’s perspective on the world to an adult’s.

But, as we see in Hogfather, the teeth, the child’s perspective, is still powerful, still valuable. It is the foundation upon which we understand ourselves and our relationship to the world, even if it is in contrast to what we once believed. A full Theory of Mind may be the end goal, but it is only through working through the process that one gets there.

And that, I believe, is why we grow up to be parents who tell our children of the Tooth Fairy—we know it is not true, but we also know that children need it to be true, if only for a while.

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