Much like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, the tooth fairy is one of those fun traditions that make childhood so magical. Many parents remember the joy of sneaking into their child’s room and slipping money under the pillow after their child lost their first tooth, and second and third — and so on!
Many children continue to lose their teeth until around age 12, leaving many parents wondering if they should continue the tooth fairy tradition — or if their kids should outgrow it like they do their pacifiers and blankies. Or perhaps they should stop the tradition when their kids ask the question…
Is the tooth fairy real?
About the time that your child starts asking if Santa Claus is real, they may also start to have their doubts about the mysterious tooth fairy. This is all part of normal development, says psychotherapist and parent coach Patti Ashley.
“According to child psychologist and researcher Jean Piaget, children cannot distinguish fantasy from reality until about the age of 7 or 8,” says Ashley. “That is why they so easily believe in the tooth fairy, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. I would say keep the imagination going as long as it lasts!”
How the tooth fairy is good for kids
Even when your child is developmentally ready to know that the tooth fairy isn’t real, media psychiatrist and bestselling author Dr. Carole Lieberman says it is soothing for kids to keep the tradition going.
“Parents should never stop the tooth fairy tradition — even once your child gets old enough, sophisticated enough or cynical enough to stop believing in fairies,” says Dr. Lieberman.
“Why? Because teeth falling out are unconsciously symbolic of death and as such, is disturbing at any age. For example, when you dream about teeth falling out, you are worrying about death — yours or someone else’s. So, pretending that a tooth fairy is giving your child a gift is soothing at any age during this transition.”
What do you do once the gig is up? “Once your child says, ‘I don’t believe in tooth fairies anymore,’ just smile and leave something under his pillow, anyway,” she says.
My child is actually scared of the tooth fairy!
What should you do if your child is actually scared of the tooth fairy? “Let the child decide if they want the tooth fairy to come,” suggests pediatric dentist Dr. Jill Lasky. “In my experience some kids don’t want to give up a part of them. If possible, find out what part about the tooth fairy scares them and adjust your family tradition accordingly. For example, leave a note instead of the actual tooth for the tooth fairy or leave a light on for the tooth fairy.”
Should you change the tradition for older kids?
As kids get older, Dr. Lasky says you can change what you leave under the pillow, such as leaving a gift card or a note about how they like being their tooth fairy, but she said to consider keeping the basic tradition the same. “Kids like traditions! Honestly, I would not change much. It’s fun to feel like a little kid sometimes, especially when so much about being a pre-teen is about changing.”
Oops! The tooth fairy forgot to come!
It’s happened to all of us tooth fairies — we get busted in the act doing the under-the-pillow swap or forget to play the tooth fairy altogether. What should you do if you want to keep the tradition going?
Dr. Lasky suggests you say that “you were helping the tooth fairy, like Santa’s elves or checking to see if the tooth fairy came yet.” She also says you could always fess up! (Of course, even though you fess up, you can still keep the tradition going.)
Did the tooth fairy forget to come one night leaving your child upset? “The tooth fairy had a busy night. We’ll try again the next night,” says Dr. Lasky.
Or perhaps the kids went to bed too late? She says you can simply say, “Go to sleep on time the next night and the tooth fairy will come!”
My child has outgrown the tooth fairy
For some families, older kids might like reversing the roles and helping out the tooth fairy for siblings, especially for teens who have finished losing their teeth. “In my house, the tooth fairy leaves money for lost teeth up until the child figures out that the tooth fairy isn’t real,” says parenting expert and DaddyScrubs.com founder Robert “Daddy” Nickell.
“I believe in fueling my children’s imaginations — however, I also know that there will come a day when my kids won’t believe in the tooth fairy any longer. As that happens, my older children have enjoyed keeping the tradition alive by helping to ‘become the tooth fairy’ by leaving money for their siblings as they begin to lose their teeth, too. It’s fun to get everyone involved and excited about traditions and to keep budding imaginations strong as long as possible.”