I’m still half-asleep, but I can hear my four-year-old daughter Anna and her dad talking over breakfast about how Haley, her six-year-old friend from school, has a wiggly tooth. Anna is in junior kindergarten, and has yet to lose any teeth. She's fascinated by her slightly older friends who have little gaps in their smiles.
Fortunately, I already know all about Haley’s wiggly tooth. In fact, Haley has either been losing teeth in rapid succession for months now, or has had the same wiggly tooth this entire time. Either way, I’m up-to-date and not that interested.
I am, however, thrown off guard when Anna comes into my bedroom and asks, “Is the Tooth Fairy even real?” By the way she asks the question, she sounds skeptical.
“Do you think the Tooth Fairy is real?” I ask in turn, buying myself one extra second to think of a response.
“No," she responds. "But is she?”
“We can pretend she is,” I wind up saying. OK, so I didn’t exactly prep for this one, but in my defence, I was half-asleep! I'm also a terrible liar.
For many parents, I presume the Tooth Fairy fable seems simple enough, considering many are already keeping the Santa Claus idea alive. But I never told Anna there was a Santa, either. First of all, we’re Jewish. Second of all, I find all this stuff weird—ethics and magic aside. Some old dude sneaks into your house via chimney, or a winged lady buys human teeth from sleeping children—it’s weird. Somehow, I didn’t actually expect that these were traditions my generation would continue to pass on to their kids. Maybe I didn’t get over that defiant big-kid pompousness about knowing the truth; I’m not sure what it was, but I didn’t get the memo. Also, when Anna was a toddler, her (supposedly non-denominational) daycare hired a Santa to visit the students. Anna was terrified, and it seemed reasonable enough to assure her that a stranger with a giant white beard and red velvet suit wasn’t real. I know there are Jewish kids who believe in Santa and the Tooth Fairy. It's just that mine doesn’t.
Anna seems unperturbed by the whole thing. And our conversation about the Tooth Fairy was brief. Had she come home from school starry-eyed about the idea (and had I been more awake), I might have thought more about hiding the truth for awhile.
Anna's dad isn’t Jewish, and his family is serious about Christmas. They have an annual function complete with Santa. For the first couple of years, I was adamant that Anna could get gifts but not participate in the whole Santa charade. When she was old enough to articulate it, however, she wanted to participate. Seeing Santa with a bunch of kids was fun for her, so I let her. She knows Santa “is a costume,” and we talk about not telling other kids because it might make them sad to find out. We talk about people being allowed to believe what they want. (And, conveniently, this has kept me out of trouble with other parents, so far.)
Here’s the amazing part (to me): When I confirm, through omission, that the Tooth Fairy isn’t real, but that we can pretend, Anna suggests that I could play the Tooth Fairy while she’s asleep. She, my four-and-a-half-year-old, runs through the whole scenario for me. She’ll leave a tooth, I’ll leave some money; I can leave a note too, or something, if I want. Truthfully, I love this idea and it’s what I had originally planned—but I’m glad she knows it’s a performance, an arrangement we’ve come to together. I’m happy to write out some cute notes in glitter glue and celebrate the rite of passage with my kid in this way.
Of course, at her age, the story of the Tooth Fairy is all around her. How conversations happen with her friends and classmates, and how they and their parents respond, has yet to be seen. Am I robbing her of magic and innocence? I don’t think so. In a lot of ways, because of the way our lives have been, my kid has learned harder truths than the fact that there isn't a fairy that comes to look under your pillow while you sleep. And I think we have magic: We go out to the country and look at stars. She watches a fingernail-sized seed slowly grow into a pumpkin. We hang out with newborns so young they can’t figure out how to open both eyes at once on their own.
I feel like I expose her to honest magic, instead of these stories; magic she can take with her as she gets older—and I feel good about that.