It's a paradox. You try to instill in your child a deep, abiding respect for truth and honesty. You strive to establish a firm base of mutual trust. Yet you can look the kid straight in the eye and tell him that when his teeth fall out, he should put them under his pillow so a winged denizen of brownie-land can sneak into his room at night, swap his baby bicuspids for cash, then vanish into the darkness like a deranged ivory poacher.
If you're lucky, your little innocents will blindly accept the tooth-fairy story, much as they accept Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and (in some households) Lothar, the Brat-Eating cyclops.
But if you're unlucky, like me, the kid will scream, "I don't want no strange lady comin' in my room while I'm sleepin'!" as my son did when he lost his first tooth at the age of five.
"She's not a strange lady," I explained. "She's a pixie. Like, ahhh...Tinkerbell, Yeah! Like Tinkerbell."
"Dad, Tinkerbell's a cartoon. She's not real."
It's a sad tale, indeed, when a kindergartner has a stronger grasp on reality than his father. My only recourse at this point was to utterly confuse the boy.
"No, no," I said. "I don't mean Tinkerbell in the Disney movie. I mean Tinkerbell in that other 'Peter Pan' tape you watch."
"You mean where Peter Pan is a lady?"
"Ummm, yeah," I grumbled, wondering how it was possible for such a bright child to emerge from my gene pool.
I was certain I'd lost the lad completely until he shrugged and said, "OK, The tooth fairy is like the real Tinkerbell. So what does she want with my teeth?"
I called my mother. She always knows the answers to these kinds of questions. And frankly, I couldn't wait to hear the explanation myself.
According to her, and I quote, "The tooth fairy takes your teeth and gives them to new babies who don't have any."
That line of reasoning pleased my son, but it revolted the heck out of me. Life seems hard enough without starting off at square one with a mouth full of used teeth.
And what about the popular parental warning, "Don't put that in your mouth! You don't know where it's been!" If you don't know where your teeth have been, what's the point?
Alas, there was not time to solve that riddle, because my son needed help with a few mental puzzles of his own such as, "How will the tooth fairy get under my pillow if my head is on it?"
Believe it or not, I knew the answer to that one: "It's magic!" Even the smartest kids believe in magic. Without it, there'd be no babies in the world, birds couldn't fly, and parents would go stark-raving wacky trying to explain elusive concepts to their children.
"How much money will I get?" my son asked, getting down to the nitty-gritty.
"Well, how much do you think you should get?"
"Two thousand dollars," he estimated. Obviously, we are raising a born dentist. Who else would equate one tooth with the down payment on a new car?
As soon as the boy ran out of questions (a first, I think), my mother and I held a private conference to determine how much a child's tooth might actually be worth in today's tooth-fairy market.
"A quarter," Mom stated with absolute confidence.
"A quarter?" I parried. "Nah 50 cents, at least. You can't buy anything with a quarter nowadays."
"You can't buy anything for 50 cents, either."
She had me there. Still, a quarter seems awfully cheap for a body part. Especially one that belongs to your own child, and that prompted excited phone calls all over the country when it sprouted out of his head.
But I relented, taking comfort in the fact that, by morning, I could stop lying to my son for the first time since his tooth started wobbling two weeks ago. And he could stop suspecting that his father is a big, fat liar.
What I'd failed to take into account is that children are greedy little capitalists who will do anything for money, candy, or toys, provided it doesn't require effort, an attention span or the consumption of green, leafy vegetables. As soon as my son had his first tooth-fairy cash in hand, he started yanking on the rest of his teeth. By that afternoon, he'd pulled out another.
Clearly, whoever it was that started the Great American Tooth Fairy Lie is a cruel practical jokester, and I was his patsy. By this time next month, I thought, I'll have a son who looks like Gabby Hayes, Jr., and I'll have nary a quarter to my name.