A case can be made that all the mythical figures of childhood exist to teach children how the world works. The Easter Bunny teaches us the supreme goal of life (chocolate). Santa Claus teaches us morality (good deeds receive material rewards – the prosperity gospel for children). And the Tooth Fairy? She teaches us economics. Her lesson: everything is for sale. Today your teeth. Tomorrow your kidneys.
Think about it.
We encourage our children to sell their teeth to a mysterious stranger who only agrees to meet at night, and only agrees to carry out the exchange on the condition that they can never be identified. Why? Are we prepping our kids for the dark realities of the illegal organ trade? No sane parent would want to teach their children that body parts have a monetary value, yet the Tooth Fairy tradition seems to teach exactly that. What is going on here?
“Oh come on,” you might say. “It’s all just a bit of fun, isn’t it? No one is really doing this to teach their kids about capitalism, are they?”
I think we are.
The logic of market exchange runs deep in the Tooth Fairy ritual. If it were just about fun, then the Tooth Fairy could leave anything – toys, a toothbrush, a piece of fruit. But the Tooth Fairy leaves cash. She pays for the tooth.
And it gets weirder.
Many people seem to see this as an explicitly market exchange. Advocates of dental hygiene suggest that the Tooth Fairy ought to leave hygiene evaluations letting children know that good quality teeth fetch higher prices. Some parents seem to have taken this advice. The message to the kids: keep healthy, your body parts will sell better.
Not weird enough?
Tooth prices are subject to inflation. If the money aspect was just for fun, why does it track the consumer price index? We could have all given our kids the same amount of money we got when we were kids. Yet everyone seems to have felt compelled to match the going market rate. You wouldn’t want your kid to feel underpaid would you? Indeed, figuring out what to pay your child can be sufficiently confusing that you might even want help from a financial analyst…
The multinational financial services corporation, VISA, has created what only a finance company could: an app to help you figure out the exchange rate for teeth. How did we get here?
Every culture has some ritual around baby teeth. The first inklings of the modern Tooth Fairy lurk obscurely in the 1900s. She likely grew out of an older European custom of giving baby teeth to mice. The kid would take their tooth, crawl behind the oven, and stick it into that mouse hole you’ve been meaning to patch up. Then they would ask the resident mouse to take the tooth and magically help them grow a strong new tooth. No capitalism here. This was very clearly about fun, and magic, and growing up, and rodents.
Then something weird happened. Magic gifts morphed into market transaction. The Tooth Fairy was born. Considering her values it’s no surprise when and where she comes from: 1950s USA – roll on the consumer society, the Cold War, and the Tooth Fairy. Just why she became so popular so fast is unclear. Could it be because she fitted the cultural zeitgeist so much better than feeding your teeth to a rat? You can’t fight the Commies with a magic mouse.
Do children actually pick up on all these ultra-capitalist overtones? Is it all just fun? Good clean capitalist fun? Who knows? I lived through the Tooth Fairy as a child, and I haven’t sold my kidneys. Not yet I haven’t, not yet.
Deeper Down the Rabbit hole:
VISA have an online version of their app for Canada here
The Tooth Fairy: Perspectives on Money and Magic. Tad Tuleja (1989) AFS Conference Papers, in Children’s Folklore Review (Spring 1991). Here.