My oldest daughter was four years old the first time I took her to the dentist. We’d been pretty diligent about brushing her teeth, even flossing occasionally, and neither my husband nor I had had cavities as kids, so I was not expecting to have any problems. I was surprised to be told that she had several cavities in her molars that would have to be filled. We made her a follow-up appointment and she had the fillings put in — six fillings, I think it was. Afterward, she really loved her “silver teeth” and kept showing them off to her friends. It was hilarious to watch her as she tried to look at them in the mirror.
Then one day a few months later, she was watching a popular kids’ show, and it was an episode about taking care of your teeth. Then she heard it, the go-to line for dental health education: “You need to always brush and floss your teeth — if you don’t, you’ll get cavities!” G turned to me, wide-eyed, and said, “But Mommy, don’t I have cavities?” The look on her face was heartbreaking. She felt confused and guilty, and the pride she had shown in her beautiful silver teeth never returned.
I’m obviously not arguing with the facts of what’s being said here. I’m sure that regular brushing and flossing does go a long way toward preventing cavities, and it’s great for my kids to hear about the importance of taking care of their teeth from more people than their parents. But when you say, “Take care of your teeth or you’ll get cavities,” she hears, “If you have cavities, you must not take care of your teeth.” Well, I know her teeth are more complicated than that and Dental health professionals know it too. But you know who doesn’t know? My daughter. And a complicated explanation about her cavities from me is harder for her to believe than a simple explanation from a kids TV show or picture book, partly because I’m not usually singing and dancing about it.
We talk a lot about Mommy guilt these days, and a trip to the dentist with my kids is always the worst for me: something medically wrong with my child — six things, in this case — that I could have prevented if I had been more diligent? Yikes. Mommy guilt galore. But we are not talking about Mommy guilt here; we are talking about kid guilt, and that is very different.
We were back at the dentist today, and now G is six. Two of her new grown-up molars are only halfway in, and already one of them has a big hole in it and the other has a sticky pre-cavity. Nobody actually believes that this is because she didn’t brush well enough — it’s more likely to be weak enamel, something about a particular food we eat, a developmental problem that occurred before she was born, or something else entirely.
But the thing is that even if it is because of inadequate dental care at home, that’s a parent problem, not a kid one. So why G have to sit there and watch her two-year-old sister get her picture taken for the “No Cavity Club”? It’s not enough for a kindergartener to have to come back for fillings; now she’s missing out on being in a club too? It’s not her fault! Isn’t needing to get a filling its own disincentive? Missing out on being in the cavity-free club is kind of like adding insult to … fillings. Ouch.
So here’s what I’m asking of the dental health educators out there: please, please, continue to come alongside parents as we educate our children about the importance of taking care of our teeth. My kids are more likely to give in and say “Aaaah” for the twice-a-day brushing battle if Sid the Science Kid is also telling them to do it. So, thank you for your help; we are on the same team.
All I want is for you to change the language you use. Instead of “brush and floss your teeth or you’ll get cavities,” how about, “brush and floss so your teeth stay strong and clean and healthy!” I just think that with your current rhetoric, you’re forgetting about the many, many kids who already have cavities. I’ve been telling my kids that everyone’s teeth are different; that some people have problems even when they brush and floss — can everyone else please back me up on this? Because my six-year-old and, as of today’s dentist appointment, my four-year-old too, shouldn’t feel ashamed of their beautiful, cavity-filled smiles.
A version of this post was first published on BluntMoms.com, which explains why my kids are much older now.