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The tooth fairy is a fantasy figure of early childhood. The folklore states that when a child loses a baby tooth, if he or she places it beneath the bed pillow, the tooth fairy will visit while the child sleeps, replacing the lost tooth with a small payment.
The tradition of leaving a tooth under a pillow for the tooth fairy to collect is practiced in various countries in the Anglosphere.
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In early Europe, it was a tradition to bury baby teeth that fell out. When a child's sixth tooth falls out, it is a custom for parents to slip a gift or money from the tooth fairy under the child's pillow, but to leave the tooth as a reward. Some parents also leave trails of glitter on the floor, representing fairy dust.
In northern Europe, there was also a tradition of tand-fé or tooth fee, which was paid when a child lost its first tooth. This tradition is recorded in writings as early as the Eddas, which are the earliest written record of Norse and Northern European traditions.
The reward left varies by country, the family's economic status, amounts the child's peers report receiving and other factors. A 2013 survey by Visa Inc. found that American children receive $3.70 per tooth on average.
During the Middle Ages, other superstitions arose surrounding children's teeth. In England, for example, children were instructed to burn their baby teeth in order to save the child from hardship in the afterlife. Children who didn't consign their baby teeth to the fire would spend eternity searching for them in the afterlife. The Vikings, it is said, paid children for their teeth. In the Norse culture, children's teeth and other articles belonging to children, were said to bring good luck in battle, and Scandinavian warriors hung children's teeth on a string around their necks. But there was another reason to burn or bury baby teeth: fear of witches. In medieval Europe, it was thought that if a witch were to get hold of one of your teeth, you could be in big trouble – possession of this part of your body might give them total power over you.
The modern incarnation of these traditions into an actual tooth fairy first appeared in print in 1927 in play for children by Esther Watkins Arnold.
Unlike Santa Claus and, to a lesser extent, the Easter Bunny, there are few details of the tooth fairy's appearance that are consistent in various versions of the myth. A 1984 study conducted by Rosemary Wells revealed that most, 74 percent of those surveyed, believed the tooth fairy to be female, while 12 percent believed the tooth fairy to be neither male nor female and 8 percent believed the tooth fairy could be either male or female. When asked about her findings regarding the tooth fairy's appearance, Wells explained - "You've got your basic Tinkerbell-type tooth fairy with the wings, wand, a little older and whatnot. Then you have some people who think of the tooth fairy as a man, or a bunny rabbit or a mouse." One review of published children's books and popular artwork found the tooth fairy to also be depicted as a child with wings, a pixie, a dragon, a blue mother-figure, a flying ballerina, two little old men, a dental hygienist, a potbellied flying man smoking a cigar, a bat, a bear and others. Unlike the well-established imagining of Santa Claus, differences in renderings of the tooth fairy are not as upsetting to children.
Belief in the tooth fairy is viewed in two very different ways. On the one hand, children believing is seen as part of the trusting nature of childhood. Conversely, belief in the tooth fairy is frequently used to label adults as being too trusting and ready to believe anything.
While parents are often unsure of themselves when promoting the fiction of the tooth fairy, the majority of children report positive outcomes. Upon learning the tooth fairy is not real, 75% of children reported liking the custom; 20% were neutral and 3% were not in favor and said they did not intend to continue the practice when they became parents.
Parents tend to view the myth as providing comfort for children in the loss of their tooth. Research finds that belief in the tooth fairy may provide such comfort to a child experiencing fear or pain resulting from the loss of a tooth. Mothers especially seem to value a child's belief as a sign that their "baby" is still a child and is not "growing up too soon". By encouraging belief in a fictional character, parents allow themselves to be comforted that their child still believes in fantasy and is not yet "grown up".
Author Vicki Lansky advises parents to tell their children early that the tooth fairy pays a whole lot more for a perfect tooth than for a decayed one. According to Lansky, some families leave a note with the payment, praising the child for good dental habits.
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The Ratoncito Pérez (or Ratón Pérez, "Pérez Mouse" in English) is a figure popular in Spanish and Hispanic American cultures, similar to the tooth fairy, originating in Madrid in 1894. As is traditional in some English-speaking countries, when a child loses a tooth it is customary for him or her to place it under the pillow, so that Ratoncito Pérez will exchange it for a gift. The tradition is almost universal in Spanish cultures, but takes different forms in different areas. He is known as "Ratoncito Pérez" in Spanish speaking countries, with the exception of some regions of Mexico, Peru and Chile, where he is called "el Ratón de los Dientes" (The Tooth Mouse), and in Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay and Colombia, he is known simply as "El Ratón Pérez". The Ratoncito Pérez was used by Colgate marketing in Venezuela and Spain. In Italy, the tooth fairy is also often replaced by a small mouse. In France and in French-speaking Belgium, this character is called la petite souris ("the little mouse"). From parts of Lowland Scotland comes a tradition similar to the fairy mouse: a white fairy rat who purchases children's teeth with coins.
In some Asian countries, such as India, China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam, when a child loses a tooth, it is customary for him or her to throw it onto the roof if it came from the lower jaw, or into the space beneath the floor if it came from the upper jaw. While doing this, the child shouts a request for the tooth to be replaced with the tooth of a mouse. This tradition is based on the fact that the teeth of mice grow for their entire lives, a characteristic of all rodents.
In Japan, a different variation calls for lost upper teeth to be thrown straight down to the ground and lower teeth straight up into the air; the idea is that incoming teeth will grow in straight.
In Middle Eastern countries (including Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt and Sudan), there is a tradition of throwing a baby tooth up into the sky to the sun or to Allah. This tradition may originate in a pre-Islamic offering, and dates back to at least the 13th century. It is also mentioned by Izz bin Hibat Allah Al Hadid in the 13th century.
You could measure how much money the Tooth Fairy leaves under the pillow, whether she leaves more cash for the first or last tooth, whether the payoff is greater if you leave the tooth in a plastic baggie versus wrapped in Kleenex. You can get all kinds of good data that is reproducible and statistically significant. Yes, you have learned something. But you haven’t learned what you think you’ve learned, because you haven’t bothered to establish whether the Tooth Fairy really exists.
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