Dentistry’s Problem Children

A good mother takes her victories where she finds them

Just as I was putting nachos in the oven, my son came bounding down the stairs, slipped into the laundry room, and slammed the door. I know the importance of giving kids space, so I minded my own business. But when the nachos were baked and he was still in with the dirty clothes, I knocked.

“Leo? Is everything OK?”


“Can I come in?”


He was standing in the laundry sink, his left foot raised and held under the running faucet. There was blood—lots of blood—pooling down the drain.

“What happened?”

“I injured my foot.”


“I cut it. With one of my knives.”

Knives had become important to Leo ever since we sent him to that wilderness survival camp for children where a four-inch locking blade is an essential item on the packing list. The campers whittle spears, then hunt bullfrogs and cook them over a campfire. Bullfrogs are an invasive species here in the Northwest, and they prey on our native tree frogs, which are too peaceful and green to fight back. Kids come back from this camp hungry, covered in mud, and go barefoot for the rest of the summer.

“I wasn’t throwing knives though, Mom,” Leo said. “Honest. It accidentally slipped.”

Such a graceful lie in a dire moment. That’s when I knew: my son was growing up. Five years ago, under the same circumstances, he would have passed out. As it was, I got him situated on the couch with his foot up over his heart. There was no way we were going to the ER for this one; it was Glee night.

When he got up in the morning, the cut started bleeding again. I called his school and reported to the secretary, “My son is home today, with a hurt foot.” I wasn’t trying to make it sound like a soccer injury, but people make assumptions all the time.

“Tell Leo we hope his foot feels better soon.”

“Yes,” I said. “Thank you. Me, too.”

When I talked to a friend later that day and told him what happened—this is my friend who was the head of youth corrections until the governor fired him—well, his reaction made me feel judged. I hope you won’t judge me. I have learned not to judge other parents. This wasn’t always the case.

Our first baby was a girl, and back then, I looked at mothers of boys with disdain. While the boys in her peer group were chasing chickens with sticks, my daughter was multitasking like a middle-aged woman, sitting on her potty chair, eating peas, and watching Teletubbies.

Then we had Leo. Leo was growing up just fine. But one day, at about nine months old, he grabbed my breast, aimed it at me, and softly said his first word:



Knives aren’t the only things he craves. About a week ago, Leo was examining basketball shoes on the Foot Locker website. “Mom, can I have ninety bucks? I wanna buy the new Derrick Rose shoes.”

Derrick Rose plays for the Knicks, but back then, he played for the Bulls. This is the kind of common knowledge that, as the mother of a child with a penis, now slips easily off my tongue.

“So, Mom? Can you? Give me ninety bucks? Derrick Rose shoes?”

“Maybe. Do you have any loose teeth?” This was a rhetorical question. I knew for a fact he had a loose one. I’d seen him wiggling it, but he hadn’t been trying very hard. He’d lost a lot of teeth in the last year, but this was his last baby tooth, a molar with a shiny crown—a real piece of nostalgia. I know ninety bucks might seem like a lot for a tooth, but in our house, because of the fairy issues (more about the fairy issues later), the value of teeth has escalated over time.

Leo’s adult teeth are hard and pretty. But when he was three, I’m ashamed to tell you, his teeth were so rotted, we had to have them fixed under general anesthesia. In 2012, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted an increase, the first in forty years, in the number of preschoolers with cavities, so at least we were trendsetters.

My kids don’t remember the day we went to Providence Hospital for the dental work, but they love the story. “Tell the one about Leo’s teeth!” they’ll beg at bedtime.

The One About Leo’s Teeth

It was a dark and stormy morning. Daddy and I packed you guys into the Honda Odyssey and headed north to Providence. The streets were empty. Three hours later—after two extractions, a root canal, four crowns, and ten fillings—we were finally on our way back south. But when we got to our block, it was surrounded by patrol cars and blocked off. I rolled down the Honda window and asked an officer what was going on.

The officer told me a guy had been shoplifting Sudafed at the Rite Aid. (This was back when one could still buy Sudafed over the counter in Portland.) He’d pulled a gun and run into the neighborhood. The police thought he was hiding somewhere on our street.

It was only nine in the morning. Ellie wanted to get to school. Leo had turned a pale green. I explained to the officer that we needed to get into our home. I pointed and said, “It’s the big gray one with the wooden dancers on the porch.” The officer told us to stay put. He said the police would make sure no one was hiding in our house.

At first, I thought it unlikely anyone was hiding in our house, but the more I thought about it, the more possible it seemed. I shouted to one of the officers loitering on the street, “Can you get a message to the officers who are in the house? Tell them to be sure to check out the closet in the upstairs bathroom. It has a false back. And to look under the bed in the guest room, and behind the shower curtain. The room in the very back of our basement has a sign on it that says, EXPLOSIVES: DO NOT ENTER, but it’s just a joke. Please, do look in that room.”

After the police declared our house “safe,” they searched the house next door, the one that had been empty since we’d moved in six years earlier. They found four squatters in the basement, handcuffed them, and loaded them into the back of two patrol cars. It turned out the squatters were all interns at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

That story really lit up Leo’s imagination. For years after, he played cops and robbers with a bottle of Red Hots marked Sudafed and a water pistol. Someday, he’ll probably share the tale with his own children, as an incentive to get them to brush and floss.


As a kid in the rural Midwest, I had a pretty decent multi-stroke air rifle that I used to shoot rats. But here in my crunchy Portland neighborhood, my parenting cronies don’t generally support weapons, real or otherwise.

Early on in our childrearing dossier, we didn’t have any guns or hunting knives in our household, either; we drew the line at two large clowns. I even advocated for preschools to require applicants to receive a passing score on some kind of Early Childhood Response to Weapons Test before admittance. This screening might involve, say, putting a three-year-old in a coop with a rabbit, a stick, and a carrot. The results would be filmed and then scored on a rubric. Imagine: a child might feed the carrot to the rabbit, or beat the rabbit with the stick, or eat the carrot and use the stick to draw a picture of the rabbit (in the dirt), or any other number of telling possibilities. The ASPCA could use a version of this test to screen potential volunteers and weed out the sickos.

As a seasoned parent, however, I now look suspiciously at moms of boys who get all self-righteous about not having weapons in their homes. Those are the boys who ultimately eat the stick and beat themselves with the rabbit.

The preschool I wanted to send Leo to—the one that served raw garlic for a snack—started opening circle at sunrise. That’s way too early in the morning for me. We looked at Waldorf, too, but I’d heard they didn’t allow kids to read until their adult teeth came in, and that just seemed wrong. Also, in the Waldorf program, I’d been told, all phenomena in the universe are explained through the power of fairies, gnomes, and magical stories.

My children don’t even believe in the tooth fairy. But our neighbor girls are believers, so for years, I’ve made my kids pretend the tooth fairy comes to our house, too. My kids quickly turned the tables on me; if we didn’t pay them well when they lost a tooth, they would tell the neighbor girls the truth, which is why tooth-letting has become more and more expensive.


I have a master’s degree in education with a specialty in curriculum development. I did my best work for the New York public schools in the nineties, just like Rudy Giuliani. I believe in teachable moments, in kids learning all the time. I desperately wanted to homeschool, but my daughter took one look at the other homeschoolers in the homeschool playgroup in our neighborhood and got down on her knees and begged me to send her to kindergarten.

And yet, I try to instill in my kids the value of thinking. I make them figure out the tip at the taqueria, the best deals at Fred Meyer, and the scores at our bimonthly neighborhood Boggle tournament. We also play a lot of categorical word games on the way to the beach, like “fruit that is spherical” or “body parts with three letters.”

One night, we were lost in Vancouver, Washington, and hail was pelting the Honda. My husband was driving, and everyone was looking to me to lighten the mood. That was when I invented our most popular family word game ever: the ABC Swearing Game. Teaching your kid to curse makes as much sense, and maybe more sense, than teaching your baby sign language. Like Piaget says, swearing with your kids naturalizes language, demystifies swear words, and empowers children.

The first time we played the ABC Swearing Game, my kids couldn’t come up with anything worse than ass, bored, and crap.

Bored isn’t a bad word,” I explained.

“That’s not what you tell me.”

“And ass isn’t really a bad word. Asshole is much worse. Besides, asshole is a compound word.” Oh, those beautiful, teachable moments. “Compound curse words usually sound better. Like fuck is bad, but fuckwad is more lyrical. You must know a badder b-word.”

My kids are smart. They could figure this out.

“What does Daddy shout at your soccer games that starts with a ‘b’?”

The light went on. “Bastard!” they shouted happily.

“Right, good. Now—what’s badder than crap?”

Eventually, we found our way back to Portland. The next evening, after dinner, while he was watching a David Attenborough video about hummingbirds, I told Leo I was taking him for his flu shot in the morning.

“Bullshit,” he said, with such appropriate spontaneity.

I met his eyes. “I know,” I said. “I feel the same way.”

We stared at each other while I contemplated how empowered he was becoming.

“I’m goin’ to Freddie’s,” I said.

I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to give my kids space. Besides, I needed to get a refill on my cat’s Prozac. My cat’s pill is tiny, and I’m supposed to give her a third of it once a day. If Barbie took Prozac, as I’m sure she does, this is what her pill would look like. My daughter loves to help me with the pill splicing. It’s a very satisfying mother-daughter activity, and an excellent way to promote small motor development.


Leo’s first and second lost teeth came out at the same time. He was at preschool and fell off a slide onto his face, neatly knocking out his two front teeth. It was a bloody mess. But he never did that again. A few years later, he started losing them naturally. Not that having them knocked out at preschool isn’t natural.

My favorite dental memory was when Leo had a painful tooth that wouldn’t come out. We went to see our pediatric dentist; let’s call her Dr. Warmsworth. It was Presidents’ Day, and they fit us right in. The gum around the tooth was irritated and swollen. My kids have positive associations with the dentist because Dr. Warmsworth’s office happens to share a parking lot with Fred Meyer. We go there for Cracker Jacks after appointments. They also like that the pediatric hygienist, Todd, is a cross-dresser.

Dr. Warmsworth examined Leo’s tooth. She wiggled it, then stood back.

“I’ll give you a choice, Leo. I can rub some gel on your gum that will numb you up and then I can pull your tooth, or I can put the gel on your gum and you can pull the tooth yourself.”

“Son of a bitch,” said Leo.

“We suspect Tourette’s,” I said to Dr. Warmsworth.

“I’ll let the two of you talk while I get the gel,” she said.

“Talk about between a rock and a hard place,” I said to Leo. “Look,” I advised him, “you should let Dr. Warmsworth do the pulling. She’ll be quick.”

“No way,” said Leo.

“You’ve got to get that tooth out. You—” I nodded at him, “—or her.”

Leo was silent.

“If you pull it out yourself, I’ll buy you anything you want at Freddie’s.”

He hadn’t been expecting that. I love the element of surprise in parenting. It’s the same kind of pleasure I gain from being spontaneous and unpredictable with my hairdresser.


“Mmm,” I said, pretending to think about it. “Yes, baby. Anything.”

Dr. Warmsworth returned with a tube of gel and a Q-tip. “Have you decided, Leo? Me or you?”

“I’ll do it myself,” Leo said.

“OK then,” said Dr. Warmsworth. “Get ready. Once the gel is applied, you’ve got fifteen minutes before feeling will return.”

I’m sure Dr. Warmsworth expected Leo to pull the tooth out right then, in her office. But Leo and I were of one mind; Fred Meyer was close by, and it would be much more exciting for Leo to stand near the thing he wanted, and anticipate having that thing, while he wiggled. We tore down the stairs at the dental plaza without stopping to pay. We whizzed by the dialysis clinic on the first floor and hauled our assholes across the parking lot to Freddie’s. Leo marched with purpose to the toy section and planted himself smack dab in front of the non-expanding-recreational-foam display. How could I even imagine then that someday he would be shopping Fred Meyer for Big Sexy hair spray, pleasant smelling body wash, and crystal stud earrings?

“That one,” he said. He pointed at the biggest Nerf gun on the shelf.

“That one? The Nerf N-Strike Vulcan EBF-25?” The N-Strike series is notable for its versatility—and, as the box shows, this weapon fires up to three darts per second and comes with an ammo storage container, a tripod, and a 25-dart belt. “The one that costs fifty bucks?”


He reached for the gun, but I was quicker. I grabbed it off the shelf and held it out of his reach. “Don’t even think about touching that gun until you’ve yanked out that tooth, young man.”

He gripped his tooth and wiggled. The wiggle didn’t hurt, but it took effort.

“Fuck,” he said. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” Only now, with his fist in his mouth, it sounded more like, Huck, huck, huck.

There was a lot of blood. The blood was dripping off Leo’s fist onto the tile floor. I didn’t have any tissue because I’d recently cleaned my purse. But, at least we were alone.

Good parenting is about proximity and distance: when to comfort, when to push, when to get the hell out of the way. This is what I was thinking when who should come around the corner but Marla Larson, the current PTA president, and her twins. Fuck, I thought. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Marla’s twins were too big to be in the cart, but there they were. I’m sure they both would’ve had high scores on an Early Childhood Response to Weapons Test. In addition to the twins, the cart was filled with spherical fruit, dark leafy greens, and Oatnut bread.

Marla’s daughter looked at me. “What’s Leo doing?” I could tell she had never played the ABC Swearing Game.

“Oh, he’s. . . .”

He was wild-eyed, wiggling his tooth, stamping his feet, eyeing the Nerf guns, turning around and around, saying, “Huck huck huck.” He was still dripping blood on the floor. Marla pulled a packet of tissue out of her purse and handed it to me.

Marla’s daughter said, “I want to be a dentist.”

“That’s nice,” I said.

A few more children and parents had gathered. From their cart, the twins were placing bets.

Leo looked straight at us. He made the last pull look gallant, but I knew it was for show. He placed the tooth into my opened palm. I wrapped it in a tissue. The small crowd clapped politely and dispersed. I saw Marla’s twins high-five each other. Leo grabbed the Nerf N-Strike Vulcan EBF-25 from under my arm and walked confidently toward the cashier.

Ah, memories.


“So, Mom. Mom? Ninety bucks?”

I put out my hand. “Tooth?”

Leo jerked it out like an old pro. He smiled.

“Leo, you know what this means?” I smiled back at him.

“You’re gonna buy me the Derrick Rose shoes.”

“Well, yes. Yes, I am. But it also means you’re not a baby anymore. Next year, you’ll be getting braces.”

And you know exactly what he said then.

About the Author

Nikki Schulak

Nikki Schulak writes and performs comedy about bodies and relationships in Portland, OR. She has a Master’s degree from the Bank Street College of Education. Her essay “On Not Seeing Whales” (Bellevue Literary Review) was chosen as a Notable Selection in Best American Essays 2013.

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