The Truth About the Tooth Fairy

When you have a child who believes in fantasy, is there ever a right time to spill the beans?
By Catherine Newman
Mar 13, 2014



Mar 13, 2014

Here is what I know about magic. I know, when I look at a stem of bleeding hearts — those perfect pink flowers that hang as though the world’s greatest artists collaborated on a mobile — that nature is magic. And I know, when I look at my daughter, Birdy (who was once a ball of microscopic cells within my body), with her head bent over those flowers, that she is, too.

Birdy is 10 and one of those dreamy kids who spends a lot of time outdoors shaping mud into pots, arranging leafy buffets for the woodland sprites, and talking to herself. She’s always spoken of fairies matter-of-factly, the way we might talk about friends or neighbors: “I hope they like the berries I left them.” “Do you think they use this mushroom as an umbrella?” “What if they’re actually huge, but I’m always leaving them these tiny things, driving them crazy?” I once popped out to the woodpile and saw, in letters shaped from ferns and twigs, a question for them. “Do you love me?” it said, and I thought: How could they not?

So it is not surprising to my husband, Michael, and me that she continues to believe in the Tooth Fairy. Or that this beautifully uncynical person, with her so earnest handwriting, tucks a letter in with each lost tooth. One of the last times she lost one, here is what her note said:

Dear T.F.,

Thank you so much for always leaving me something! What it is like being the Tooth Fairy? Please write back if you can.

—Birdy Newman

You have to admit that the way nature handles this transaction is miraculous: A kid loses a tooth, and a giant one, like an enameled baking sheet, bashes its way in to replace the world’s littlest pearl. But the actual replacing of teeth with money? Well, that’s cheesy sleight of hand: The tooth is taken, the coin is left, and her father or I write back, using our best wrong-handed penmanship to disguise our too-human handwriting:

Dear Birdy,

It's fun being the Tooth Fairy. I get to see so much of the world.



Only eventually we began to wonder: What did it mean, to continue to actively deceive such a trusting child? Despite her dreamy nature and love of fantasy, Birdy is also a 10-year-old with a fierce commitment to truth-telling and honesty. “That was not exactly an actual fact,” she will advise darkly, when I hang up the phone after suggesting that we cannot join this or that activity due to a prior commitment.

“Well,” I say, lamely, “sitting on the couch with a Boden catalogue kind of feels like a prior commitment.”

When, we asked ourselves, would our cultivation of a creative imagination turn into something more like plain old lying?

So when she lost another tooth, we decided to take a middle path: We took her tooth and the note and left money — but we didn’t write back. There was still room for imagination, we believed, but we would not be perpetrating any direct deceit.

Only we screwed it all up, managing to both spoil the enchantment and obliterate the truth in one terrible fell swoop. Which we only found out recently, after Birdy lost yet another tooth and left yet another note — this one:

Dear T.F.

I lost a tooth! Thank you so much for the visits and the coins, and I'm sorry if I've bothered you at all. Thanks again!


—Birdy Newman

We had replaced the sparkling world of winged generosity with the dull tween world of self-doubt. My husband showed me the note with a hand over his heart. “What are we going to do?” he asked. Whatever it was, it would need to be lovely, because, on top of everything else, I was worried about embarrassing her.

And so I wrote her a note, rolled it up like a little scroll, and tied it with a ribbon. I told Birdy everything I’ve just told you here: That she is the greatest magic I have ever experienced. That I don’t know if there is a tooth fairy or not, but that I do know that her father and I are responsible for the part about the tooth-coin interchange. That her beautiful heart is all the mystery the world needs, but is surely not the extent of it.

She read the note and smiled, and her eyes glittered just the teeniest bit with tears. “I don’t really know what I believed anymore, to tell you the truth,” she said. “But it’s good you told me! Imagine if you hadn’t, and then I had children. My poor kids would never get anything for their lost teeth! I’d just be waiting and waiting for the tooth fairy to come.”

“You’re a real silver-lining kind of girl,” I said, and kissed her face with its grown-up teeth. She laughed and said, her eyes shining, “I really am.”

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