The tooth fairy is a popular American myth that also teaches kids about dental care. Here's everything parents need to know to make this tradition even more fun.

By Angela Hatem
October 20, 2020
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If you were to look inside the bottom drawer of my mother's old jewelry box, you would find treasures from days long since passed: a simple gold bracelet she picked up in the '80s, four sets of earrings that have been missing from their mates for decades, and tucked in the very back of the drawer, just behind the macaroni necklace I made her in kindergarten, you will find three sets of 38-year-old baby teeth that were rescued and stockpiled by the tooth fairy.

Cute? Perhaps. Creepy? A little bit. Kind of like the legend of the tooth fairy, which makes its way into more than 80 percent of American households with kids, according to the Original Tooth Fairy Poll by Delta Dental.

Here's your guide to learning all about the popular tooth fairy, plus creative ways to make the tradition fun for your children.

Credit: Getty Images

Tooth Fairy Origin

While the adventures and folklore surrounding the tooth fairy may take place in mystical faraway dreamlands, her beginnings are quite humble and very much rooted in Americana, says Ryan Renfro, historian and consultant for the former Tooth Fairy Museum in Deerfield, Illinois.

"The myth itself is largely attributed to American literature," says Renfro. The tooth fairy is said to first have appeared in print in a 1908 issue of the Chicago Tribune and then in 1927 in Esther Watkins Arnold's three-act playlet. But the tooth fairy's popularity really exploded in more recent decades—in the '70s, for example, a radio DJ in Chicago mentioned her on air and the American Dental Association reportedly received a bunch of calls to learn more.

The tooth fairy's mythical purpose has always been to visit children while they lay sleeping and trade their baby teeth for a sweet or financially handsome reward. For many kids, that function alone is enough to justify the tooth fairy's existence. But for parents, her legend surpasses the treats and lends itself to a more functional purpose of helping adults explain physical changes and basic dental hygiene to kids as they lose their first tooth around 5 or 6 years old.

"Through literature and the myth of the tooth fairy, parents can now have an active part in helping kids understand this biological change," says Renfro. After that DJ's mention especially, says Renfro, "the dental world recognized she could be helpful in encouraging good health care."

What Does the Tooth Fairy Look Like?

Unlike some other mythical characters, the tooth fairy tends to vary in appearance. There's the small figure with wings and a wand, which is popular in the U.S., while other countries, including Mexico and New Zealand, describe the tooth fairy as a mouse or rat.

Her appearance also varies from imagination to imagination, says Renfro. "Sometimes she's male and sometimes she's female," he says. "Sometimes she's an animal like a duck or a cat. It's all in the eye of the beholder."

What Does the Tooth Fairy Do With the Teeth?

What the tooth fairy does with the teeth also varies. Some narratives say the tooth fairy will hold on to the teeth for their perceived value. Others say she uses the teeth to make fairy dust or to continue building her castle. Parents can get creative with this one, because why not?

Is the Tooth Fairy Real?

Somewhere around the age of 7 or 8, many children will go to their parents with the same dreaded question: "Is the tooth fairy real?"

While this very blunt question may seem to come out of the blue from your child, don't let your answer come from the same place. "It's important for parents to think ahead of time what their truth will be about the tooth fairy," says Mindy Wallpe, Ph.D, an Indiana-based licensed psychologist. "You don't want to be caught off guard when the question is posed."

Before you go spilling the beans about the tooth fairy (or any other magical being your child may love), find out what they really know. "You can always start by asking your child why they are asking you this question," says Dr. Wallpe. "It could be that depending on age, kids may be starting to talk about it at school. It might not mean that you need to crush the dream of the tooth fairy just yet."

Another tip: "Keep in mind a child's age and what purpose believing in the tooth fairy serves for them," says Dr. Wallpe.

But as tempting as it may be to keep your kid's world filled with magic, if your child comes to you with pure doubts and valid questions, be prepared to give an honest answer. "You can be gentle and creative with how you are honest with them," says Dr. Wallpe. For example, you can share with your child that while the tooth fairy may not be real, she is a part of a fairy tale and fairy tales are still fun.

Fun Tooth Fairy Ideas

While this moment of reckoning will one day come, enjoy the magic and fantasy of the tooth fairy with your child for as long as you can. Here are some fun ways to help you get started in earning your tooth fairy wings.

Notes from the tooth fairy

Pick up some fun paper, some brightly colored pens, or some cool stickers that are used only for notes from the tooth fairy. Be careful not to let your child see you using this special paper for grocery lists, or else the jig is up. Let your child wake up to special messages made just for them from the tooth fairy. These notes are also a great way to allow someone that isn't you to encourage your child to keep up the good brushing and flossing efforts.

Tooth fairy pillows

These cute little pillows will not only be a fun part of your family's tooth fairy tradition, but they also come with a special pocket for that roly-poly tooth. It's a great feature for any tooth fairy who is carefully fumbling around for tiny teeth in the dark. Simply have your kid place the fallen out tooth in the pillow, and then trade the tooth with their treat.

Moments over money

If you gave your child a choice between a special day with their parent and a shiny new quarter, Mom or Dad have a good chance of winning. Rather than digging out a couple of bucks, consider leaving your kiddo a pair of tickets to the zoo or a certificate to their favorite restaurant so that you can go together. Those memories may make losing a tooth even more special.

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