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Is the Tooth Fairy Corrupting Your Kids?

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Young Kids

Does the tooth fairy leave money for lost baby teeth at your house? If she does, how much cash does she pay out per tooth?

According to VISA, some tooth fairies leave $3 per tooth. Others leave $5. Some very well-heeled tooth fairies are reported even to leave $50. Fifty dollars!

Each year, VISA conducts a survey of parents about tooth fairy payouts. The 2013 survey of 3,000 parents, just completed at the end of July and not yet published (though widely reported), found that tooth fairy visits this year result in 23% more money than they did just a year ago and 40% more than in 2011.

VISA reports that the national average tooth fairy-value of a baby tooth these days is $3.70. Six percent of parents report leaving $20 per tooth. And a you’ve-gotta-be-kidding-me 2% actually report leaving, yes, $50 per tooth.

In my day, the going rate for a baby tooth was 10 cents, tucked into a Sunday school offering envelope and slid beneath the pillow under my sleeping six-year-old head. That translates into just 86 cents in today’s dollars. So, clearly, more than just inflation is going on.

VISA’s spokesman Jason Alderman speculates that parents are trying to make up for lack of attention in other areas of their relationship with the child. Another VISA spokesman posits that parents view tooth fairy duties as a competition engaged with other parents, and more cash under-the-pillow demonstrates both more love and more financial capacity, should any other families find out. Regardless of the motivation, the message sent to children is problematic.

The whole tooth fairy notion is thought to be a way of easing a child’s anxiety over having part of his body fall out, by offering a monetary exchange, and also a way of softening a parent’s distress that her baby is growing up, by inventing a childish fantasy around the experience. So both parent and child are invested in the tooth fairy idea and enjoy it. But something in this fun custom is lost when the payout elevates a lost tooth to the level of a birthday. Even children realize that something is out of whack.

And this out-of-whack realization is corrupting. Over-payment sends the message that no amount of money is too much to ask for and that value is not tied to anything in the real world but is based only on what the market will bear. This is the sort of thinking that spun Wall Street out of control recently. Learning this sort of lesson early in life is not the sort of education children need.

There is no reason to go along with the tooth fairy game at all. If your child hasn’t lost a first tooth yet, you might want to consider if you want to let the tooth fairy into your lives at all and, if you do, what role you want her to play. Will she leave money? Or will she leave something else, maybe even just glitter standing in for fairy dust?

If you do have a tooth fairy and you do permit her to leave money, keep the amount within reason. Losing a tooth isn’t the same as losing another body part. A tooth does get replaced automatically, after all. Even though the national average might be nearly $4, keep in mind that this average is thrown off by those $50 payouts. A more reasonable amount – something in line with my own childhood, adjusted for inflation – is just a dollar. Even less – a shiny quarter, perhaps – would be fine.

The fun of the tooth fairy lies in the surprise (and, for the parent, in the challenge of slipping something past a sleeping child). It doesn’t really matter if the surprise has monetary value at all.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.