When my older son started losing his baby teeth, I 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. 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 older son was always more than happy to write out a long note to the tooth fairy if it meant he'd awaken in the morning with some cold, hard cash underneath his pillow. And, from the time he lost his first tooth, we always just assumed that people universally believed in the notion of the tooth fairy coming in the dead of night to take their baby tooth and leave them with money. But, then my sons started going to an internal French school, and we learned about the la petit souris who visits French children who lose their baby teeth.
So, we had to find out more about the tooth fairy we believed in, and to see how other cultures mark the important time when children loose their baby teeth. And, what we found out is that they're not very different from each other at all.
In fact, the tooth fairy tale is said to be 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 more modern version of the tale is told in "The Tooth Fairy," which Lee Rogow penned in 1949.
With the rise in popularity of the tale, the place of the tooth mouse and the tooth fairy began to take on a more predominant place in lost tooth tales from 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 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 tooth mouse and the tooth 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 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.
Throwing baby teeth up onto a roof or into the sky
In some Asian countries, when a child loses a tooth from his or her upper jaw, they throw it up onto a roof. Likewise, if the tooth comes from his or her lower jaw, they throw it 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. 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.
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.
Other 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, 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 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 Laine; and Tooth Tales from Around the World by Marlene Targ Brill.
Preparing for our next visit from the "tooth fairy"
These days, my older son is done losing teeth - for now. And, the spotlight has been turned to shine on my six-year-old son. But, as of now, he hasn't lost any teeth yet - but a few are really loose.
With each new day, the anticipation of losing his teeth grows and the wonder of the tooth fairy steadily increases. But, now that he's older, my son has begun not just to question who the tooth fairy or la petit souris really is, but if it's real.
And, this just makes the whole discussion of tooth fairy traditions from around the world all the more relevant. For as he doubts that the tooth fairy is real, he'll have to understand that there's got to be some truth in it since so many people in so many countries take it to heart.
For me, it's made me realize that the fact that the tooth fairy tale comforts parents just as much as kids is very true. Because, I know I want my six-year-old son to continue to believe in the magic of the tooth fairy (or la petit souris) for as long as possible. For when the belief fades, my "baby" will indeed by growing up and quickly running off to meet new milestones head on.
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.
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