Our most audacious lie

We got too cocky, collectively. We overshot.

“I would never lie to my children.”

This? This is what a liar sounds like.

I try to be honest with my children when I can. I really do. I try to present things to them in simple ways, and not sugarcoat things. In most situations where a parent asks “how am I going to explain this to my kids?”, it’s not that they can’t explain it, it’s that they don’t want to, or simply don’t understand it themselves. Kids are smart, resilient, and capable of taking in new information.

I still lie to my kids all the time, though.

I lie to them about little things, like whether or not we have any more ice cream in the freezer. I lie to them about big things, like society being a meritocracy. I lie through omission and I lie through willful obtuseness, I lie by pretending I can’t hear them, I lie because if it’ll make my life a little bit easier, I’m just going to do it. 

And, like so many other parents, I lie about the existence of mythological figures and their presence in our lives.

For instance: Santa Claus. That one makes sense. That was a good lie. Sure, the myth has strayed quite a bit from its traditional origins to now exist primarily as the avatar of rampant holiday commercialism, but it’s still worth perpetuating when kids are little. It’s nice for kids to believe in a benevolent figure who cares for all, and it’s nice for parents to invent a mysterious middleman between kids’ desires and their own wallets, one that can be used as a cudgel for good behavior in the fourth quarter of the year. 

The Easter Bunny? Makes a little less sense, but sure, we’ll let it ride. The mythology’s an unfocused mishmash of generic springtime imagery—a rabbit that brings eggs wouldn’t make it past an editor’s desk in the 21st century—but, like every tradition that began with the Germans, you’ve just gotta bake a little weirdness into your expectations. Besides, it’s once a year, it’s low stakes, and it keeps the kids from understanding that you can just buy those big chocolate bunnies at the regular store yourself. 

For generations, parents have successfully lied to their children about these figures, and for the most part, it’s gone swimmingly, all parties leaving satisfied with the arrangement. Like any successful liar, though, this made us overconfident—cocky, even—about our ability to pull off any grift. And then we went too far.

So we come to the Tooth Fairy.

Santa? Santa you can plan for. If you celebrate Christmas, you know it’s showing up on the same day every year. No surprises. Easter falls on a different Sunday each year, but they’re announced well in advance; if you get caught off-guard there, it’s because you weren’t paying attention. In both cases, you’ve got ample time to do the necessary legwork to keep the lie alive. 

But the Tooth Fairy? Ohhhh. That can happen on a moment’s notice. Sure, if you’re lucky, a baby tooth’s exit will announce itself in advance; it’ll be loose for a few days or even a few weeks before its bill comes due, allowing you to prepare for your end of the deal. That’s not always the case, though, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t keep small cash on hand all the time. So you get times when you find yourself driving to the ATM at 11pm because a molar decided to pop out right before bedtime, then trying to find a store that’s open and can make change so you don’t have to set a $20-a-tooth precedent. It’s problematic, and not just from a practical perspective.

It’s a weird story to tell kids! 

Like, yes, Santa’s a tiny elf who breaks into the house and leaves presents, the Easter Bunny has some cryptozoological confusion going on, but a body part collector who pays in cash? That’s messed up, man. I think kids realize it too.

“Hey, kiddo, just a heads-up—she’s gonna come in while you’re sleeping and grab that tooth from right underneath the pillow your head’s on. Don’t know what she wants with it, but I’m sure she’s got her reasons. She probably won’t harvest any other organs while she’s in there. Anyways, sleep well!”

I’ll be honest: I wasn’t aware until recently of the Tooth Fairy’s origins—I just assumed it was the Germans again—and so I got downright mad when I pulled up Wikipedia and found this passage.

The modern incarnation of these traditions into an actual Tooth Fairy has been traced to a 1908 "Household Hints" item in the Chicago Daily Tribune:

Many a refractory child will allow a loose tooth to be removed if he knows about the Tooth Fairy. If he takes his little tooth and puts it under the pillow when he goes to bed the Tooth Fairy will come in the night and take it away, and in its place will leave some little gift. It is a nice plan for mothers to visit the 5-cent counter and lay in a supply of articles to be used on such occasions.

We’re in this because of a newspaper column?? Some early-20th-century Dave Barry is why I’m now obligated to make sure I have a few singles1 stowed away at all times? This is unacceptable, and I’m mad about it.2

The problem is, we’re in it now, and there’s no good way out but through.

You see, kids talk. If you decide to opt out of the Tooth Fairy, suddenly you’ve created a breach in the system; your kid is the Myth Denier, and there’s a short logical path from “the Tooth Fairy isn’t real” to “The Easter Bunny and Santa Claus aren’t real either” and before you know it, the whole house of cards is coming down. They’re going to realize that eating your peas doesn’t make you run faster, their tablets do work after 7pm, and their goldfish didn’t just change color overnight that one time.

Like the investment banks in 2008, our lies have gotten too big to fail, and we’ve got to prop them up whether we like it or not. 

We just have to explain to the kids that yes, the Tooth Fairy is real. She has nothing but good intentions for your discarded teeth.

And, oh—sometimes she leaves a Home Depot gift card under your pillow instead of cash. So, uh… do you want to go buy some duct tape or something? 

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)

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1

What is the going rate here, anyways? I paid $5 for the first tooth, but I feel like I can squeeze that down for subsequent teeth, maybe? First one’s the most valuable one, y’know. Please let me know in the comments. I’m in over my head here.

2

Of course, superstitions surrounding the loss of baby teeth stretch back centuries, and I loved this part from the same article: “During the Middle Ages 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 did not consign their baby teeth to the fire would spend eternity searching for them in the afterlife.” This is metal as hell and we should do it instead. Scaring children is so much cheaper than infusing their lives with comfort and whimsy.