My son has been inconsolable for close to six months now. The issue is hurting his self-esteem. He constantly says, “I am different.” Before you think it is issues like different skin color, hair color/style, physical challenges or other such social encumbrances, let me tell you that he is seven and, for the most, still blissfully unaware that such difference exist. His problem revolves around his teeth. He does not have ugly teeth, buck teeth, cleft palate, cavities, bad root canals, bleeding gums or a strange smile. No, it is none of those things. In fact, had it been one of those issues, it would have been easier to deal with..
No, ours is a different dental dilemma. He has beautiful teeth, just perfect. And that is the problem – he HAS all his teeth. He has not lost a single one, unlike his buddies who have lost many. His friends in little league team picture are all smiling with gaps in their teeth. He points them out to me and says, “Look Mamma, they have all lost their teeth. And this kid is not even seven. When will I lose my teeth?” I try explaining to him that each kid loses their teeth at a different time. His big brown eyes look at me pleadingly, “why not me” they seem to ask. Why would a child be so upset about not losing his teeth? I brush off the topic. Really, I tell him, there are bigger things to worry about in life then losing your teeth.
He begins to avoid brushing his teeth and broods when reminded to do so. A cheerful boy on most days, it makes me sad to see him get upset over something I view to be so minor. I wonder what to do, what else to say.
Then I get invited to the end-of-the-year parent-teacher conference at his school and I see the crux of the problem. In his classroom is a chart. A chart that is meant to be fun and cute and I guess it would be if you “belonged” on it. It is a large piece of green paper, tacked on a sideboard on a large board facing the classroom. The title is something about tooth fairies. It then has all the names of the kids in the class and how many teeth each have lost. So Sam has lost four, Jordan has lost two, Hailey has lost five and then at the bottom of the chart was the name of one single kid who has not lost any. Yes, you guessed it. My son Jai. In that instant it hits me.
What I have been viewing as minor is his whole existence. This first grade classroom is his world. He wants to be just like his friends.
I ask him about the chart. His gentle explanation breaks my heart even more — Each day the kids come up and add their tally of their newly lost tooth on the tooth fairy chart. Then they chat about what the tooth fairy got them. He stops and I realize that it is not really about teeth but about belonging and my child feels left out. I wish I knew how to read between the lines of my seven-year-olds complaint. I wish I had seen what was really bothering him instead of being so literal and focusing on the teeth.
School ends and summer passes quickly. He seems to have forgotten about his teeth for now. He still has not lost any. I call his pediatrician who assures me that it is normal and that every child loses their teeth at different times in their life.
A few weeks after the new school year begins, I notice a change in his behavior. He is no longer obsessing over his teeth, still a full-set.
I take him to see his grand-aunt who also happens to be a pediatrician. The teeth issue comes up again. “You are lucky to have such strong teeth; the others had weaker teeth so they fell out. Yours are strong and when they fall out, your new teeth will be even stronger. Just like you are,” she says gently. He smiles, with all his teeth still intact, and laughs. “I know.” I am baffled. “I know” was not the reaction I expected. But something has changed.
I discover the truth at the next parent-teacher conference in his new grade. I enter the new classroom and instinctively turn to the walls. They are filled with maps, sayings and beautiful pictures.
This new classroom has no tooth chart.
Now, he feels like he belongs.
UPDATE — He is now 8 and the proud "loser" of two teeth.