(Originally published February 12, 2010 at playgroupwithsylviaplath.com)
“Mom, I have some really exciting news to tell you,” my eight-year-old said to me when he got off the bus recently. This is one of my favorite things about having a child in the early grades of school. They seem to come home almost daily with some great conquest of knowledge or observation they’ve been keeping in their pocket to share with me all day. “Mom, did you know there are 8 million atoms in a period in a book?”
The exciting news this time from my second grader? “I have a wiggly tooth.” His palpable excitement was crushed quickly by his older brother – all of twelve years old, “You are such a loser.”
“Do you want to feel it?” Because, for an eight-year-old boy, it’s completely normal to ask if you want to stick your fingers into his mouth, grasp his tooth and push it around in a circle and back and forth in his gums. In fact it is so normal that if you say “no,” he will say, “why not?”
The tooth fell out a day or two later and he was able to add another little plastic tooth keepsake box from the school nurse to his collection. We went through the charade of the tooth fairy – whom he has actually told Slim is spelled M-O-M. Somehow, I find selling my children on the Santa fantasy palatable, yet I have a harder time thinking that convincing them to believe in a magical fairy that exchanges cash for teeth is good parenting.
In many European countries, the traditional belief is that the tooth fairy is a magical mouse. Excepting Scotland, where the little dental sprite takes the form of a white fairy rat visiting children’s bedsides under the cover of night. Now there’s an image that invites a peaceful night’s sleep.
Then just a few days ago, my seventh grader informed me that he has three loose teeth. I refrained from telling him he was “such a loser.” Instead, I got to thinking, why do kids lose their teeth? There is no other body part for which you get a practice round and then regenerate.
And why do kids get their permanent teeth and all of the attendant orthodontic wear right in the prime of gawkwardness? Wouldn’t it be better to emerge once the food groups have expanded from gum, Nerds and Skittles? To say nothing of waiting until a kid can actually be responsible for his dental hygiene more than two nights in a row?
But, apparently no. Our bodies are designed to follow a particular course of growth, development and maturation. And teeth are an important part of that process. In fact, for many who have theorized and constructed timelines on the stages of development, teeth can be important milestones.
Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner linked teeth directly to his theories of the 7-year cycles of childhood and learning. A child ages one through seven is busy growing their physical bodies, the central nervous system is getting itself under control and the child is all about himself.
Jean Piaget, a Swiss biologist, called this stage pre-operational. For him, a child during these years is “oriented to the present, the child has difficulty conceptualizing time.” That explains the odd – but frequent – question from my youngest, “Mom, I forget, is this yesterday or tomorrow?”
Piaget goes on, “His thinking is influenced by fantasy – the way he’d like things to be. He takes in information and then changes it in his mind to fit his ideas.” Piaget would like this one, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if there was a giant gumball machine robot in our backyard, mom? Wouldn’t it?”
When the primary teeth begin to fall out, this is the beginning of the end of early childhood. Steiner’s Waldorf schools go so far as to all but require a missing tooth to enter the first grade. It is seen as a sign that the mind is ready to take on the task of learning to read.
Of course being slightly on the touchy-feely side, there would be no chart of who’s lost how many teeth in a Waldorf kindergarten. The “lost teeth” charts have even been phased out of many traditional schools, as the perceived competition has only added to children’s anxiety. And really, it’s important for everyone (parents especially) to understand, just because Lauren has lost four teeth doesn’t mean she’s gifted.
Even my pediatrician and orthodontist agree, once the top four and bottom four teeth fall out, there is a period of latency. A few years for the body – and the parents of that body – to catch their breath. It’s generally a period of health and happiness.
For the theorists, the years between the loss of the first and the last baby teeth is middle childhood. It is the stage of the concrete. Kids begin to gather a body of concrete knowledge, facts and observations and make rational judgments. The world becomes much more black and white, and there are no longer fantasies of gumball machine robots. As awesome as those would be.
And then, somewhere between twelve and fourteen years old, the proverbial other shoe, er teeth, drop and adolescence begins. To the theorist, this begins the stage of abstract thinking, opening up the youngster to issues of morality and ethics. Ah, yes the teenage years, the last seven-year stage in the cycle which will wind from adolescence to adulthood.
That stage still feels far away for me, but I know that it gets closer every time I see my oldest put his (filthy) hands in his mouth to wiggle a loose tooth. I wouldn’t mind if he held onto those last teeth for another few years. Because this is what those European scientists say about the teen years, “adolescents perceive future implications, but may not apply them in decision making.”
When I opened up one of my littlest boy’s bedroom drawers, I found his handful of lost tooth boxes. I know that eighth tooth will fall anytime now. And then he will close the drawer on early childhood. And unfortunately, I have no difficulty conceptualizing time. Very clearly, that will be yesterday, and my tomorrows with my three boys will be one less.