° empty

Can parenting prevent cavities?

Say the name Miss Jenke and my jaw will reflexively start to quiver. Beads of sweat will form accompanied by a nervous chattering of teeth.

As a young kid, nothing scared me more than the dental hygienist. I was convinced Miss Jenke’s only purpose in life was to torture young children with her tooth scrapers, dental floss and metal picks. I would do anything to avoid sitting in her green reclining chair with my mouth wide open and my eyes closed shut.

To be fair, Miss Jenke isn’t to blame for my fear of the dentist’s office — my grandfather is.

I loved my Granddaddy a lot, but when it came to his philosophy of dentistry, the two of us never saw eye to eye.

He believed that a little pain goes a long way when it comes to dentistry. He didn’t believe in the use of Novocaine and was convinced that one cavity-filling episode without the numbing agent would set any child down the path of good dental hygiene.

All it did for me was keep me as far away from the dentist chair as possible — so much so that the years of neglect set me up for many root canals, crowns and tooth extractions in adulthood.

Thankfully, my teeth have not decayed to the point that I have had to endure surgery under general anesthesia.

More and more children these days are not as lucky.

In an article for the New York Times, a spokesman for the American Dental Association has confirmed that dentists are seeing a “huge increase” in toddlers in need of surgery for decayed teeth. This spike is not for children with 2 or 3 problem spots but with six to 10 or more cavities.

Dentists interviewed blame the problem on sweets and snacks before bedtime, bottled water without flouride and poor parenting.

In a way, my grandfather’s medieval dentistry tactics have had one positive result — all of the agony I have endured in adulthood has prodded me into focusing on my son.

No matter how much crying he makes, no matter how hard his mouth is clamped shut, his teeth will get brushed before he goes to bed.

According to the New York Times, many parents are not as demanding when it comes to brushing. They don’t want to traumatize their children by forcing them to brush, one dentist concluded. Brushing teeth used to be non-negotiable. It no longer is, he said.

Of course, the tears at bedtime are far less traumatizing to children than the dentist’s drill.

It is also far less traumatizing to parents’ wallets. When the tooth decay gets so bad that surgeries with general anesthesia are required, the procedures end up costing parents thousands of dollars. And yet, the number of pediatric dental surgeries is increasing at all income levels, the American Dental Association says.

Like my grandfather, you would think that such pain in the pocketbook would persuade parents to pay more attention to their children’s teeth. Unfortunately, some of the dentists interviewed admit that they see some of the same children repeatedly. One dentist related seeing a child come in for his second surgery with a soda in his hand.

Response to the New York Times article has been blistering from parents who say they are doing all the right things and still ending up paying for high-priced procedures. Many point to poor genetics, bad dentistry and bad luck.

The fact remains that the number of preschool cavities is rising dramatically.

Why it is I am not so sure, but thinking about it makes me think back to Ms. Jenke and realize she is not the real reason to be scared.

Now, where is my son’s toothbrush?


Ben Hillyer is the design editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.