The Tooth Fairy Tale
The question is how much information you give your kid about what, exactly, is involved in the pulling of a tooth. You probably don't tell her, for example, that a woman wearing a mask is going to come at her with an enormous needle that will be inserted with some force into a branch of the fifth cranial nerve, and that that's just the overture. You don't tell her that the woman with the mask is then going to wield a set of shiny pliers with which she will toggle, twist and yank, until one entire molar, root and all, has been extracted from the jaw, leaving a cavernous, bloody hole and a mouthful of drooly gauze to chew on.
No. Instead, you work the Tooth Fairy angle, and work it big. "You think it's going to hurt?" Sasha asks me, as we drive toward the dentist. She is 5, way too young, I think, for the world to go from rainbows and sparkles to pain and misery.
"Getting a coin under your pillow?" I say, deflecting. "I don't think a coin under a pillow ever hurt anybody."
"No, not that, Mommy," she says.
"Ice cream?" I say, guessing again. I have promised her a cone of fudge swirl immediately following the big pull. "I never heard of chocolate ice cream hurting anybody."
"No, Mommy, the tooth!" she says.
"Oh, the tooth!" I say. "Are you still thinking about that silly tooth?"
"Well, the tooth won't feel anything," I say, speaking technically. "And remember I told you they're going to put the tooth to sleep first?" I say, speaking metaphorically. I'm working every angle here, but the cold, hard truth: This is gonna hurt like hell. Do I ease my child into this fact of life? Will it help her to know, in advance, that today is the day she will cross over from the age of innocence to the age of . . . dental hell?
Dr. Barb, the pediatric dentist, told me not to shame my daughter, not to use the hard tactics of the good old days when dental pain was punishment for sugar-related crimes. In those days, one skipped brushing could result in torture, sanctioned by your parents and delivered by a specialist with a lot of teeny, tiny whirring drills. Dr. Barb said Sasha's cavity was a weird anomaly -- a huge hole that probably started out as a chip, then went without delay to decay, and oddly resulted in no pain. All of her other teeth are in tiptop shape, so this was not a case of poor hygiene. Don't blame the child. (Or the mother.) Sometimes bad cavities happen to good people.
We park the car on Level 4, and I let Sasha push all the buttons to all the elevators leading to the dentist's office. A nurse wearing a paper yellow smock greets us, fawns all over Sasha about her pretty coat. Soon Dr. Barb appears and fawns all over Sasha about her coat. Administrators come out to look at the coat, and soon enough another nurse appears with a bag of goodies -- princess toothbrush, plastic cat, stickers, rings -- which she hands to Sasha while everyone fires questions at her about kindergarten. Has anyone in her class been visited by the Tooth Fairy yet?
Sasha shakes her head no, and one of the nurses says she's going to go dial 1-800-Toothfairy, to schedule the Fairy's arrival, and then she hands Sasha a special tooth box and a magic sparkle sticker, to put on her pajamas, that will "help the Tooth Fairy with directions." We are standing here, my daughter and I, bombarded with all of this. No idiot, my daughter says: "Mom, I think this is going to hurt a lot more than we thought."
Us vs. them. That's how we proceed. I tell her I'll hold her hand the whole time. I tell her Dr. Barb seems like a nice lady, and I think she'll make it quick.
"I don't want to do this," she says, finally.
"Me, neither, Sweetie," I tell her.
I'm impressed with her bravery. She cries when they give her the shot but quickly collects herself, allowing for the pliers. She yelps and moans toward the end of the yank, then holds her mouth and sobs. Dr. Barb moves away and allows me to put my arms around my courageous girl. I tell her it's all over; she did it; it's all over.
We go for ice cream and call everyone we can think of. Sasha tells the story again and again, and in the retelling she has herself crying only a little, then not crying at all; nope, she was a soldier, a warrior, a hero. She has a tooth in a little box, and she'll show it to you if you want. She declares that she has, somehow, made a deal with the Tooth Fairy so that the tooth, her badge of honor, will not be taken. Instead, the Tooth Fairy will leave the tooth under the pillow undisturbed and will kindly place a gold coin in an envelope thoughtfully provided.
This all plays out beautifully until the second night, when Sasha wants to put the tooth under her pillow again, for another round of loot.
"Uh, no," I say.
"Why not?" she says, having landed on a perfectly inspired scheme.
"It doesn't work like that," I say. "It just doesn't."
"That," she declares, "is not fair."
Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.