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Tooth Fairy economics

Adam Jerrett, 7, snuggled with his pillows where he keeps his loose teeth for the Tooth Fairy.
By Rachel Zarrell
Globe Staff / April 24, 2012
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Years ago, when a child in her daughter’s class lost her first tooth and got $20 from the Tooth Fairy, Linda Jerrett was angry.

“All the parents were,” Jerrett, whose daughter is now 20, recalled. “Their daughter was one of the first at the time to lose a tooth. We didn’t have quite as much money, so we were like, ‘What are you doing?’ ”

Jerrett, who lives in Reading, also has two younger children, ages 7 and 13, which has put her back into the role of the Tooth Fairy all over again more than a decade (and a much-changed economy) later. Still, as for how she determines how much cash the imaginary sprite will swap for baby teeth, she said “social pressure” remains her guiding factor.

“In my town it’s generally five bucks a tooth,” Jerrett said, an amount that’s almost $3 more than the 2011 national per tooth average of $2.10, according to an annual survey done by insurer Delta Dental.

Such totals are due, in part, to the rise in kids’ — and parents’ — expectations around just about every holiday and near-holiday. At Halloween, a plastic bucket to collect candy isn’t enough anymore — there’s scary yard decor to consider and catalogs filled with pricey costumes. Easter often includes wrapped gifts in addition to a cute candy basket. And when birthdays roll around, many kids expect a bash at Build-a-Bear or a rented jumpy house in the backyard. Pin the tail on the donkey? Please.

And so it is with the Tooth Fairy.

What was once a magical experience that helped overshadow the mild trauma of tooth loss – a fairy leaving a token under a pillow in exchange for baby teeth – may be going the route of other gift-giving occasions. Some parents feel pressure to give an amount equal to their child’s peers, if not a gift as well. It’s keeping up with the Fairy Joneses.

Frantic parents will often stop by the children’s store Magic Beans in Brookline, where manager Colin Dwyer helps them find the perfect gift to celebrate a lost tooth.

“If it’s a first tooth it could be something pretty big. A lot of times, because they’re losing teeth a lot, they’ll buy little things,” he said, adding, “It’s almost like a panic moment.”

To be prepared for unexpected tooth loss, he said some parents like to stock up on toys. Purchases will often be small tchotchkes that are part of a set, like Lego Minifigures, which cost $4 each and come in an opaque silver bag, to make the contents a surprise. Charm It charms are also popular, which attach to a bracelet and cost around $5 each.

For some families, it’s all about the money. On TheBump.com, a parenting site owned by wedding resource The Knot, moms exchange their Tooth Fairy experiences, with many saying they give $10 or $20 for first teeth, and other parents replying that they “must be cheap” for giving less.

This month, HAFranklin wrote, “A girl in [my daughter’s] class has lost 3 teeth already, and she got $20 for each one! Great. Now the tooth fairy is going to seem like a cheap jerk because her tooth fairy is a show-off.”

In general, such numbers are outliers. According to the Delta Dental survey, Tooth Fairy gifts took a hit when the stock market crumbled in 2008 (the average dropped to $1.88 per tooth), before climbing up to $2.52 in 2010, and settling back down last year to $2.10. Considering that kids lose 20 baby teeth, that adds up.

David Elkind, professor emeritus of Childhood Development at Tufts University and author of “The Hurried Child,” said parents use the Tooth Fairy as a conduit for their busy-parent remorse.

“They’re anxious about their parenting, maybe not being with their kids as much as they should be,” he said, “so this becomes a focus for their anxiety and their guilt. And so they overdo it to make up for other lacks that they feel.”

So how do parents maintain the fairy-tale illusion when their child comes home from school wondering why Bobby got $10 and a toy from his Tooth Fairy? Elkind recommends telling kids to write to the Tooth Fairy to complain, to keep it “imaginary.”

He also suggested that parents reply that, “There are different fairies. Their tooth fairy is very generous; we have a stingy tooth fairy.”

To stray away from the monetary aspect, some parents go a more creative route, which can come with mixed results, not to mention depleted energy.

When Angela Mellon’s daughter, Mamie, now 11, started asking questions about who the Tooth Fairy was, she came up with a plan: She left a note from their fairy, whom she named Marigold, written in curlicue letters in purple ink. For an added touch, she left glitter near the bed and on the windowsill.

“It’s one of those things that I thought was such an awesome idea the first time we did it,” Mellon said. “But then I realized the upkeep of doing it every time they lost a tooth was going to be a nightmare.”

A scientist who works full time (as does her husband), Mellon, who lives in Medford, said maintaining Marigold ended up “snowballing into this colossal effort” for each personalized note.

“It got to be like, ‘Oh man, I’m so exhausted, it’s 9 o’ clock and we have to get the Marigold stuff together,’ ” she said, adding that they didn’t get nearly as involved for their 10-year-old son Ewan’s Tooth Fairy. “But you know, I’m still glad we did it.”

Maureen O’Brien, a parenting coach at Destination Parenting based in Canton, compared the evolution of the Tooth Fairy to the trends in children’s birthday parties. Where a balloon or extra piece of cake to take home used to suffice, these days parents often feel the need to bestow goody bags upon guests — bags filled with candy and a handful of trinkets.

“I feel like we as adults just kind of create competition in situations where the kids really are not as concerned about it as we think they will be,” O’Brien said.

She advised that the Tooth Fairy give an item that would seem special to the child, like a quarter from a state the family visited together. To turn the occasion away from money, she suggested bringing the conversation back to the gap in a child’s mouth and how they’re “big kids now.”

“Make it about what it’s really supposed to be about, a real marker for growing up,” O’Brien said, “and they’ll be much more excited about that than whether they feel short-changed.”

Rachel Zarrell can be reached at rachel.zarrell@globe.com.

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