My seven-year-old son recently lost his third baby tooth - the first one from his top jaw. These days he's walking around with a huge gap in his smile and he couldn't be happier. Since my son started losing his baby teeth, I've learned that a missing tooth is indeed a status symbol for the younger set. They wear their toothy smiles with pride - much to the envy of other children yet to be so lucky as to lose their own baby teeth (like my four-year-old son for example...). And, they gladly eat soup or yogurt for lunch instead of a hard-to-bite bagel or apple. It's just that cool. And then there's the tooth fairy...
My son is more than happy to write out a long note to the tooth fairy (even if he was too tired to do his homework that night...) if it means he'll awaken in the morning with some cold, hard cash underneath his pillow. But, I have to admit, it always seemed a little strange for me to tell my sons that a lost tooth means someone is going to come into their room in the middle of the night while they're sleeping - even if she comes bearing money. So, with tooth number four coming out soon, I had to find out more about this long-standing, American lost tooth tradition and see how other cultures mark this important time when our children grow older and gladly welcome the arrival of their "adult" teeth.
The Origins of the Tooth Fairy Tale
In anticipation of my older son losing his first tooth, we fielded a lot of questions about what happens next.
Who is the tooth fairy? How does she get into our home? How does she know I lost a tooth? Can we stay up to see her? How much money will she give me? What will she do with my tooth? Is it always a girl?
And, so, in the hours leading up to the impending visit, we talked a lot about the tale of the tooth fairy, sharing the supposed "truth" without ever dashing their hopes that the tooth fairy may not actually be real.
After some digging, we learned that the tooth fairy tale is rooted in the belief that it provides comfort to children about the potentially painful loss of their baby teeth. And, some say it also makes parents feel better by having our "babies" believe in something so innocent and mythical as the tooth fairy even though, in reality, they are indeed growing up - maybe even faster than we hoped.
The origin of the myth itself is said to come from the 17th century tale, "La Bonne Petite Souris" (The Good Little Mouse), written by Madame d'Aulnoy. In "La Bonne Petite Souris," a fairy changes into a mouse to help a good queen defeat an evil king. To do so, the fairy/mouse hides under the king's pillow one night and then knocks out all his teeth. A version of the tale is told in a more modern version of the story, "The Tooth Fairy," published by Lee Rogow in 1949. With the publishing of this new tale, the story of the tooth fairy began to be told by more and more parents. And, as word spread, the tale became more popular, cementing the place of the tooth mouse and the tooth fairy in family traditions around the world.
A Tale of Two Traditions: The Tooth Fairy and The Tooth Mouse
While the tooth fairy brings money to sleeping children in most English-speaking countries and a few northern European countries like Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, New Zealand, Denmark, Germany and Norway, many other countries opt to have the tooth mouse to come visit their children.
The tooth mouse plays a starring role in tales told in Spanish-speaking countries, where it is called el Ratón (Spain, Venezuela and Mexico) and el Ratoncito Pérez (Argentina), and in French-speaking countries like France, Belgium, Switzerland, Morocco, Luxembourg and Algeria, where it is called la petite souris. In parts of Scotland, lost tooth tales feature a rodent of a different sort - a white rat. In all of these countries, the mouse and the rat "purchase" children's teeth from them with coins - similar to what American children are given by the tooth fairy.
In some countries, the tooth fairy and the tooth mouse happily share the spotlight in children's hearts, minds and dreams. It's not surprising that this is the case in Quebec, Canada, where French and English are spoken. In Italy, some children believe in the "topino" (mouse) and the "fatina" (fairy) too.
And, why not have the best of both worlds? When my younger son heard about la petite souris in France, he asked that we take a trip to France when he looses his first tooth so he can get a visit from the tooth fairy here in Chicago and la petite souris in France. Sounds like a good excuse to plan a trip abroad!
Throwing Lost Teeth Up on a Roof or in the Sky
In some Asian countries, when a child loses a tooth from its upper jaw, they throw it up onto a roof. Likewise, if the tooth comes from their lower jaw, it is thrown down onto the floor. When doing either one, the child asks that his/her newly lost tooth be replaced with the tooth of a mouse since its teeth grow for their entire life.
In Japan, children follow a similar tradition, with the one caveat that they try to throw their lost teeth straight up or down to help ensure their adult teen grow in as straight as possible. In India, some children throw their teeth up onto a roof and ask that a sparrow bring them a new tooth. And, in the Dominican Republic, children throw their tooth onto a roof and hope that a mouse will come and take it away and bring them a new one.
The tradition of throwing your teeth is also followed in Middle Eastern countries like Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt and Sudan. There, children throw their lost teeth up in the sky towards the sun or to Allah. In Egypt, children wrap their teeth in a tissue and then throw it at the sun, with the hope that the sun will give them a better tooth. And, in the Philippines, when a child loses a tooth, he/she throws it over a roof in hopes that a mouse will bring a sharper and stronger permanent tooth - as strong and sharp as the teeth of a mouse.
Exploring Lost Tooth Traditions From Across the Globe
Given the many different people, beliefs and cultures that make up the amazing, diverse fabric of the world, it is not surprising that there are many other lost tooth traditions followed around the world. In El Salvador, children put their lost teeth under their pillow and wait for a little rabbit to bring them money. And, in China, children put their upper teeth at the foot of their beds and their lower teeth on the roof in hopes of helping their permanent teeth grow in faster.
And, I'm sure that just scratches the surface. There are more tales to explore and share together - which is why I'm glad there are plenty of books that help bring many of these multicultural tales to life.
A few books that share multicultural lost tooth tales from around the world include:
- Throw Your Tooth on the Roof: Tooth Traditions from Around the World by Selby Beeler and G. Brian Karas
- The Tooth Fairy Meets El Ratón Pérez by Rene Colato Lainez
- Tooth Tales from Around the World by Marlene Targ Brill
Preparing for Our Next Visit from the "Tooth Fairy"
So with my older son's fourth tooth getting more wiggly by the day, we're actively preparing for another lost tooth to present itself -and for our family to once again take part in one of the many lost tooth traditions followed around the world. But, this time, we're going to read up on other traditions - and I'm going to let my son decide which one to follow.
Knowing my son, I'm sure he won't be too picky about whether the tooth fairy or the tooth mouse (or something else) comes to visit or if he has to throw his tooth up on a roof somewhere - just as long as he gets some money out of the deal. And, I'll just have to be content to savor the fact that he's still young enough to believe in these old and much-loved tales.
What "lost tooth" traditions do you and your family follow? Do your children get a visit from the tooth fairy, a small mouse or something/someone else? Do they throw their lost baby teeth up on a roof or down on the floor? Please share your stories in the comments below.