In the last couple of days, I have spent considerable energy thinking about the tooth fairy. It is our own fault really. On Thursday, our daughter lost her sixth tooth. On Friday morning, she woke up to tell us that the tooth fairy hadn't come. And then trouble ensued.
My initial reaction to this sad news was to go up and check her 'tooth box' carrying money in my hand in a vain attempt to suggest that she had just missed it being bleary eyed in the morning. This plan was aborted when I opened the box to find, well, a tooth. Obviously, to take the tooth now would be a tad too obvious.
On to plan B; imaginative lying. We settled on, "obviously, lots of children must have lost teeth on Thursday and the tooth fairy is just one fairy and can do so much. She will be here tonight." Our daughter bought that and, indeed, when discussing the incident with a friend, it turned out the same thing had happened to him once. (We must remember to thank the parents!)
A colleague of mine recounted to me his 'imaginative lie' when faced with a similar dilemma. He said to his daughter (and I am not making this up), "Oh, I came into your room last night and saw a bright thing buzzing around that looked like a firefly and so I swatted it." It wasn't clear that that was to death or just away but his daughter was suitably (and understandably) horrified.
In that light, our lie is much more tame. However, that didn't stop another parent being horrified with me as I recounted the day's incident: "how could you just lie to your children?" Ahem, it is the 'tooth fairy' we are talking about here! I think I have a pretty much free license on that one.
To continue the story, we almost forgot again on Friday night, but got this just in time. We have so many more teeth to come amongst our three children, this is bound to be an on-going issue.
This led me to think about the whole tooth fairy thing. From an efficiency standpoint, it would be much better if a child could present a tooth to us and receive cash on the spot. No running around at midnight searching for coins. It also saves on other inefficiencies. This time around our daughter ended up with New Zealand currency (I had just returned from there and it was lying about). If she asks about it I'll embellish our original lie. "The Australia tooth fairy has been busy, as you know, and so probably asked the New Zealand one to come in and help out." As you can see, globalisation works out for the general good again.
How did we end up in our current situation? According to Wikipedia, the tooth fairy has origins in the United States around 1900. But it really appears to have taken off in Western cultures post-WWII. Suggestions allude to the value of myth and how children like story telling as a rationale for the tooth fairy. But that doesn't ring true.
When it comes down to it my daughter knows exactly where the money is coming from but is quite happy to 'play the tooth fairy game' if only for the benefit of her younger siblings. So there is no sense of wonderment there. Just the usual raw economic calculus.
My hypothesis is that the 'tooth fairy deal' persists because it is an excellent incentive device. When a child has a loose tooth, there is a possibility that it may not come up necessitating more drastic action. This might be a parental intervention (you know, the string and the door trick) or worse, an expensive trip to the dentist. What can stop this is if the child endures a little bit of pain and wiggles the loose tooth. To provide an incentive for this action, we offer some money for the tooth. Saving a $50 dentist bill for a dollar or two a pop seems like a good deal.
Indeed, we know of a child who was two days from going to the dentist who was offered (and it is not quite clear how this fits in with the tooth fairy lie) $20 if they could pop the tooth that day. Surprise, surprise that is just what happens. I pity those parents, however, on what will happen with the next tooth. The child will anticipate the dentist deal and wait until the last minute. Much better to hold the strict tooth fairy line.
This all leads me to think more about other economic issues associated with tooth fairies. What drives the price of a tooth? Does it drift with the rate of inflation or the cost of dentists? What about the mechanism for the exchange (tooth under pillow versus tooth in cup of water versus, our solution, tooth in special box)? All interesting questions that I'll need to return to at some point.