Why We Keep Teeth

Benji has lost four teeth so far, the front two in the top and bottom. Before he lost his first tooth, which came out at the end of June last year, we prepped him with the hard reality that there is no Tooth Fairy. We are the Tooth Fairy, I told him. This didn’t faze him, as long as a prize appears overnight in place of his tooth.

We also skipped the tooth-under-the-pillow shenanigans, and instead have a special jar to contain the tooth. The jar sits outside Benji’s bedroom door, making it nice and easy for the “Tooth Fairy” (he still wants to pretend, even though he knows it’s us) to make the swap.

So: Today Benji lost his fourth tooth, the final front top one.

Benji with top and bottom front teeth missing.

This means my human tooth collection now expands to four. Yep; I’ve kept all Benji’s baby teeth so far.

Not that long ago, my mother gave me a baggie of my own baby teeth that she’d kept for nearly 30 years. She’s not alone: I have anecdotally heard of lots of parents who keep their kids’ teeth.

Which got me thinking: Why do I keep these nasty relics?

It’s bizarre and rather gross. These aren’t exactly the crown jewels here, y’know?

But today I think I figured out why I, at least, feel irrationally reluctant to just toss those teeth in the garbage (compost? I guess they’re probably compostable… eventually; they are organic, but like shells probably don’t decompose much, hence teeth in skulls thousands of years later… Maybe if you crushed them up…. Hmmm)

Sorry, back from my tangent! It was interesting, but as I was saying, I think I feel reluctant to get rid of Benji’s baby teeth because they represent, at a very visceral level, his childhood — and losing them emphasizes both his maturing and how quickly it’s happening. A baby getting his first tooth is exciting, and often much celebrated, but not nostalgic. It happens in that 18 months of insanity that all parents survive with only vague, hazy memories.

A kid losing his baby teeth, on the other hand, is leaving babyhood behind. He’s growing up, maturing, and becoming increasingly independent. He’s had those baby teeth for five, six, seven years — long enough that they feel like part of who he is. Losing them is an exciting and healthy but somewhat heart-wrenching step towards becoming a new person.

So! No wonder it’s hard to chuck those baby teeth without a qualm: They’re all tied up with all the fraught emotions of memories of a child as a baby, and anticipation of the future and a child growing up. We’re great at celebrating this step for kids, but I wonder if there would be some way for parents to celebrate this, too, a way that acknowledges the more complex feelings potentially tied up in these little teeth… but that also gets rid of them in the end, too.

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