Not Ready

How Do I Tell My Kid The Tooth Fairy Isn't Fair?

Grappling with the wildly unpredictable inequities of the fairy financial system is tough for kids and parents alike.

by Keema Waterfield
Portrait of a cute little girl with a wonderful toothless smile
MmeEmil/E+/Getty Images

My daughter lost her first tooth weeks after her fifth birthday, much to my surprise. I had no idea baby teeth could begin shedding so early. I hid in the bathroom and did a panicked Google: when do baby teeth start to fall out? Welp. Usually 6-7 years of age, newbie. So, she was a bit early. Not only that, but the adult tooth underneath had already erupted behind the baby tooth. Did I need to call the dentist?

But I had a more immediate problem when my daughter knocked on the bathroom door. “So, the Tooth Fairy comes tonight, right? Will she wake me up, or…?”

It was February 2021, and I hadn’t been inside a grocery store or a bank for a year (thank you, pandemic). I had no cash, and my debit card had just expired.

I asked Twitter the going rate for teeth these days and almost fell off the toilet. Replies ranged from $1-20, with the majority falling between $5-10. (Turns out the national average is a little less than $4, but I didn’t know that then.) I preferred something in the middle, somewhere between a hand-written note that said “yay” and a fistful of bills.

I found myself briefly paralyzed by this completely predictable parenthood milestone, thrown back to an ongoing heartache from my childhood. Why were the Tooth Fairy, Santa, and Easter Bunny visits at my house so shitty compared to my classmates? (Sorry, Mom. I know you did your best.)

Growing up, I regularly sprinkled cheese over my Top Ramen noodles because boxed Mac and Cheese was often too expensive for my single mother, an artist and musician making do on tips from waitressing gigs in southeast Alaska. I was ecstatic whenever the Tooth Fairy bothered to drop a whole quarter instead of two dimes and a nickel, until one girl in second grade flashed the fiver she’d gotten in the school cafeteria. Something small in me saw that and whispered, Dummy. The good Tooth Fairy doesn’t even know you exist.

My husband grew up the son of a lawyer in rural Idaho, and usually received “funny money” from his fairy. A small stack of half dollars, a couple of $1 coins, or a $2 bill. Not a huge sum, but a far cry from my single quarter. Lucky bastard.

I liked the idea of strange change, and the alliterative quality of two bucks for a tooth had a nice ring. But it was late at night, and ATMs don’t give out singles or $2 bills, so my husband and I dug through our wallets and coat pockets, eventually finding two dollars in the glove box of the car. Whew.

The next morning my child ran screaming through the house with her money like a cartoon caricature of a 5 year old. “I’m rich! I’m rich! I’m rich!” She tossed her cash in the air and did a little dance.

After she’d called both grandmas, two uncles, and an aunt to show off her new smile, I grabbed her up for a hug. “I just want you to know there are a lot of tooth fairies out there making deliveries,” I told her. “Some give more, some less. I left a note for our Tooth Fairy that if she can swing two bucks for our kids, that’s plenty.”

“WHAT?” my kid lasered me with eyes the size of a church donation platter. “I could have gotten more?”

“I love that the Tooth Fairy wants to check out your gorgeous teeth while you’re asleep,” I said, ignoring the fact that she had no idea what more dollars even meant yet. “But I’m the one who made them, brushed them twice a day for five years, and helped you yank that thing out. Why should the Tooth Fairy get all the glory? Here’s the deal: I will match your dollars so you can pick out something special that’s also from me.”

She thought about this a beat. “Will my fairy give a little extra to someone else who needs it?”

I nodded.

“Okay,” she said. “Deal.”

I gave myself a mental high-five. No spoiled kid here. My child was willing to donate her imaginary money to someone who needed it more. She knew I loved her and wanted to celebrate with her. She was prepared for the wildly unpredictable inequities of the fairy financial system way before it could catch her off guard in the school cafeteria.

That GOAT high carried me until a few months later when my daughter’s best friend lost her first tooth. She called us the next day to show off her new gap-toothed grin and a wadded up twenty.

“Oh, wow. That makes me sad,” my kid said, drooping sideways on the couch.

Off-screen, I heard our friend’s mom sigh wearily. “Our Tooth Fairy couldn’t make it to the bank last night.” Oof. I felt that.

You can bet there were tears. So. Many. Tears.

“Some things feel really unfair,” I said, thinking back to how nice it would have been to hear that when I was little. “Do you want me to renegotiate with your fairy?”

She shook her head. “My extra went to my best friend, and she really needs it. I’m just sad.”

We’re three teeth in on this arrangement now. I keep a stack of singles in an envelope, just in case, and our Tooth Fairy is getting good at writing notes with her non-dominant hand.

My six-year-old asks tough questions about life. Why did the pandemic happen to her childhood instead of her mom’s? Why aren’t other kids still masking up at school to protect their little brothers? But she’s not asking herself why the good fairies favor the kids who already have it easy. She’s asking: “Is my extra going to someone who needs it right now?” And that’s the magic only her very own Tooth Fairy could bring.

Keema Waterfield is the author of Inside Passage, a nomadic childhood memoir set along the wild coast of southeast Alaska. Herwork has appeared in The New York Times, WIRED, Brevity, and others. She lives and writes on Séliš and Qlispé land. Follow her on Twitter @keemasaurusrex and Instagram @keemasaurusrex.