The Tooth Fairy, Santa, Parents, and God
How parents approach The Tooth Fairy with their children -- and why anyone would care
Learning santa/tooth fairy/easter bunny were not real was traumatic to me as a kid. Gave me great distrust in my parents and also led me to question religion as they described god the same way. I became super scared of death because I decided that meant heaven was also a lie.
On the surface, the tooth fairy is silly fun. But it’s also something bigger, as one of 1300 respondents to my “Tooth Fairy Survey” told us last week above.
The connection among mythical creatures - as above - was common. The word “Santa” appearing 91 times in 300 comments, like this one:
I'm treating all mythical creatures - fairies, Santa, Easter Bunny, etc - the same
and this one:
We are more real about Santa and other things. But we felt we could keep the magic with the tooth fairy....
Some people put the tooth-fairy decision in even starker terms:
It’s a trade off, magic vs. betrayal. The world is a rough place, I chose magic.
I study communication that strengthens professional and personal teams, and silly fun can sometimes teach us something about serious matters. You can see that the tooth fairy is both simple fun and a great place to start thinking about truth-telling and trust in families.
It turns out that trust is the most critical element of successful teamwork in virtually every study about teamwork and every piece of writing about teamwork. So, anything we communicate that builds trust or damages trust affects our ability to work as a team.
One respondent even connected the dots between trust and the tooth fairy for us:
We believe that these types of myths lead kids to believe less in facts. We want to be science-based in our household. That means being honest and fact-based. It’s hard because they wanted to believe in the myth and once my son put his tooth under his pillow to test it. In the long run, though, we are instilling trust and that is more important.
Here’s what we found:
1. About 70% of families have a Tooth Fairy at first
Of the 1302 people who identified as parents and for whom the tooth fairy was relevant, 71% initially told their children that the Tooth Fairy was real/nonfiction and that “she” visited their homes. (One family had a male tooth fairy!)
When my oldest child started to lose teeth, I thought I had made up a creative, “hybrid” appoach: “Yes, she’s your parents, but we still do it for fun, wink wink, nudge nudge.” It turns out my made-up approach was the second most common approach at 18%.
I was surprised to find that only 5% of sampled parents told their kids the tooth fairy was pretend and didn’t do anything resembling the tradition. An equal number said “Other” and either specified in the comments section or didn’t elaborate at all.
2. About 90% of respondents grew up with the Tooth Fairy
To estimate how most people were raised, I looked only at the portion of respondents who said they did what they grew up with.
Within that group, 92% that they grew up with a “real” Tooth Fairy.
(Also within that group, 5% said they grew up with the hybrid approach, 2% said they grew up with honesty about the tooth fair’s fiction status, and 1% said “other.”)
3. Only one third of respondents said they “didn’t think much about it”
As an overthinking evangelist, I was happy to see that only 435 out of 1302 respondents or 34% said they didn’t think much about it. It turns out (see Q9) that our population of respondents had much more formal education than the population of Americans, so this tendency to think things through becomes less surprising in that light.
Since most people were raised with the tooth fairy, respondents were more likely to think about the question if they had taken different path. The chart below shows the percentage of respondents who said they “didn’t think much about it” in each type of parenting approach.
4. Magic Minus Honesty (MMH) Score correlated with choice of approaches.
I made up a metric called “Magic Minus Honesty” (MMH) for each respondent and calculated it as follows:
These responses were all about how you made the decision regarding the tooth fairy, not your general feelings about childhood magic or honesty. Directness is one of the most widely held values in the United States, so I am assuming the tooth fairy question is something of an anomaly.
The MMH Score showed most people in the middle with an average of 1.01, and the MMH Score did distinguish from among approaches.
Obviously, if you place a high relative priority on magic over honesty, you are more likely to take the “tooth fairy is real” approach. Team “tooth fairy is real” had a higher average MMH score of 1.65.
If you placed a high relative priority on honesty, you were more likely to tell your children that the tooth fairy is pretend. The “tooth fairy is pretend and we don’t do it” team had an average MMH score of -0.85.
Hybrid people like me are more spread out with a mean in between the two extremes and closer to the “honest” end. The hybrid-wink-wink-nudge-nudge team had an average score of -0.67.
5. Gender split was the same across approaches
About 86% of our sample was female compared with the population of the U.S., which is roughly 50% female.
Each approach, though, was approximately the same. That is to say, there was no difference in approach across genders.
Aside from the similarity in gender split across groups as shown here below, several people commented that they had to reconcile differences in approach with a co-parent, as well.
6. There might be a very slight age-related trend away from blind adherence.
The average birth year of all of our respondents was 1981. The average of the hybrid group was 1983 and of the “tooth fairy is totally pretend” group is 1984.
Given the large number of responses, you might say there was a very, very slight trend away from adherence to the nonfiction fairy and toward a hybrid/honest approach. In the 1990s, you can see a real shift, but there are relatively few responses in that age range.
7. Even though this group is highly educated, education doesn’t seem to vary widely among approaches.
About 13% of Americans have earned graduate degrees. But in our sample, about 69% hold graduate degreees.
Education levels are approximately evenly split across groups, with a slight preference for “the tooth fairy is real” among the graduate-degree set and a similar preference for the “tooth fairy is pretend” among those whose education ended with a bachelor’s degree.
What’s she paying these days, anyway?
Finally, many people expressed disappointment that I hadn’t asked more questions about practical matters like how much the tooth fairy pays and how payment varies by region.
If you were one such disappointed survey taker, Delta Dental has you covered! Their web site shows you historical trends compared with the S&P 500 and tooth fairy legends in different parts of the world. You can also get regional variation here.
Hoping it doesn’t have to be “magic versus betrayal”
Lots of comments were of the “magic versus betrayal” kind, but I hope that’s a false dilemma.
If the goal could simultaneously be about having fun and magic and building trust in families, the solution might be the wink-wink-nudge-nudge hybrid approach 18% of parents take.
I’m hoping conversations like these catch on across America:
Tooth Fairy convo went well with my 5 year old! She asked if it was me on second tooth. I said yes - she started to cry and I said that just because it was me, doesn't mean that we can't still pretend and that she won't get a $2 bill next time. She cheered up big time, and now she speculates about what the tooth fairy might bring. "My tooth is loose - it would be SO GREAT if the tooth fairy gave me a new lego toy..." I am now laying the foundation for this thinking on Santa!
Maybe in doing so, we can retain the magic and fun of childhood that so many people value while still building trust within our families.
If you are a family that values instilling faith in religion in a world with declining rates of religious faith, maybe a hybrid approach might avoid the decline in faith that some of our respondents expressed to us and to a large international Santa study when they began to learn that Santa wasn’t real.
Or maybe it’s just a tooth fairy. :)
Big thanks to Prof. Emily Oster, who was kind enough to share the survey link with her Substack readers. She brought in 1,200 of my 1,300 full survey responses. And of course, thank you to our participants.