Oct 26 2009

Lying through our Teeth

It’s not easy, maintaining the myth of the tooth fairy.

I’m not sure why I feel compelled to perpetuate this little legend. It’s a lie.
I suppose it’s an automatic reflex: The tooth fairy comes to take away our children’s teeth because our parents told us she (it is a she, right?) came to take away ours. Just like Santa Claus lives at the North Pole and rides behind his preternatural reindeer on Christmas Eve because that’s what our parents told us, so we tell our kids. Say all you want about how Santa exists in our hearts and in the spirit of Christmas, but no matter how you dress it up: it’s a big fat lie.
foster_grant_smile
Last summer, Short-pants expelled a baby tooth that had been hanging on for over a month. She was so excited that she put herself to bed early, the tiny piece of enamel centered under her pillow, waiting to be magically traded for a coin, overnight. The next morning she galloped down the stairs in tears.

“The tooth fairy didn’t take my tooth!”
Oh Shit, I said. (Not out loud, though.)
“That can’t be,” I said, audibly.
“It’s true,” she said, lifting her cupped palm up toward me. There it was, that little tooth, the same one that had fallen out of her mouth the afternoon before.
“Wait a minute,” I said, “What’s today’s date? Are we in…is it August?”
“Yes?” she said, verging on hysteria.
“Well of course, the tooth fairy must be on vacation!”
“Really? On vacation?” she said, reining in her sobs, hope in her little voice.
“Everyone in France goes on vacation in August. It’s the same for the tooth fairy.”

De-facto quietly shut the door to his office.

“We just have to try again,” I assured her. We agreed to put the tooth under her pillow the next night, and again the next night – every night in August if necessary – until the tooth fairy returned from her holiday. (That tooth garnered 2 euros, btw, double the usual booty.)

Should I have told her the truth? “Mama was supposed to sneak upstairs and take the tooth from under your pillow and replace it with a one euro coin, but as a result of a 10-hour brunch in the courtyard with Ricky and Lucy, she fell asleep before you did.” (And why does mama speak about herself in the third person on occasions like this?)

Or more brutally: “I forgot.”

Two weeks ago, Buddy-roo’s front bottom tooth was wiggling; this would be her first tooth to come out. I was about to leave for a 10-day trip, De-facto would follow several days later to join me for a work assignment. I worried, what if the tooth fell out while we were gone? I wrote a note to our babysitter – she’s loyal and reliable but from another culture that doesn’t have a tooth fairy – explaining this ritual. She heeded my request but because Buddy-roo wanted us to see the tooth before it was relinquished to the fairy, it was put away for safekeeping. When we returned, the babysitter
without_toothwent to get it from the basket on top of the microwave oven, where she’d put it, but looked back at me in a panic. She uttered one word, the name of our cleaning guy, and the whole story was clear.

“Wait,” I said to Buddy-roo, who was impatient for me to examine the lone tooth. “I really want to see it, but I have to do one thing first.” I nodded at our babysitter to let her know I had a plan. I ran to my bedroom closet, dug into those precious jewelry cases stashed in the back, and pulled out one of Short-pant’s little lost teeth – probably the same one from last August. Returning to the scene of the crime, “Now, let me see that tooth,” I rummaged around the top of the microwave, pretending to find the tooth that had been left there. Buddy-roo even inspected it herself and couldn’t tell the difference. Crisis averted.

Essayist Paul Graham suggests that adults lie constantly to their kids for a number of possibly legitimate reasons: to protect them, to preserve their innocence, to maintain our authority – or sometimes simply to keep the peace.

We arrive at adulthood with a kind of truth debt. We were told a lot of lies to get us (and our parents) through our childhood. Some may have been necessary. Some probably weren’t. But we all arrive at adulthood with heads full of lies.

Will my daughters resent me when they discover this? I never held it against my parents. Why? Why didn’t I resent being lied to? Will my girls forgive me when they find out the truth about Santa? The Easter bunny? The tooth fairy? And anything else I might have to make up just to help them make sense of this world?

I asked De-facto if he was uncomfortable with the ruse of the tooth fairy. He said losing a tooth could be pretty traumatic for a little kid. Maybe knowing the tooth fairy sees value in this small spare part makes up for the shock of having it fall out of your mouth.

So I lie to my kids. Sometimes for their own good. Sometimes for my own sanity.

Like the time we let the girls watch Sophia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette. It’s one of those films made for an adult audience, but it’s nuanced enough that the girls can watch it. At the end of the film, there’s a scene in which Marie Antoinette is being taken away in her carriage and she looks out the window at the Petit Trianon for the last time.

“Where is she going?” Buddy-roo asked.
“They’re taking her to prison.” I said.

Then there’s a shot – maybe the last one in the film – very slowly panning the boudoir of Marie Antoinette and Louis the XVI, which has been totally
Versailles_bedroomtrashed by the angry mobs of protesters that made their way to Versailles.

“But why did she go to jail?” Buddy-roo asked.
“Because she didn’t clean her room.” I said, nodding at the screen, “Look.”
“Oh,” she said, “She really went to jail because she didn’t clean her room?”
“That’s right.”