Monday, September 21, 2015

LIFE LESSON | Visit to the Dentist (1949)

Elisabeth is front and center, holding hands with her mother
Hilda van Stockum, c. 1949.
This is not about how to prevent a child's teeth from decaying. It is a suggestion about what to do if they do.

The obvious step is - take the child to the dentist. That seems simple enough. It's when you get there that the trouble begins.

No matter what you have told your child about the lovely chair and what the dear darling Dr. Dentist is going to do, the child may stampede at the last moment and become completely unmanageable.

There are two ways of dealing with this.

One way is to clap a cone of gas over the child's nose or use force in some other way. Sometimes that involves calling in some passerby to help hold down small waving limbs and is not without its danger - one poor dentist had his thumb bitten off that way. Besides, it is not particularly good for the child and though we may, at that point, care little what happens to the young thing, it is better to take the long view.

The other way is to appeal to the reason of the child. You could promise recklessly all you have if the child will just please, please open his mouth and sit still. This is not a good method, because though you are counting on his not remembering the promises in detail, the child's memory may prove embarrassingly accurate.

The idea of a reward is good, but it should be earned. Perhaps the method that worked with my four-year-old Elisabeth may work with other children.

Elisabeth was quite happy to go to the place her brothers and sisters had been going. Her head was filled with romantic stories of "pink stuff" that the dentist sprayed in your mouth and that tasted like cinnamon. She was absolutely unsuspecting of evil and sat down hopefully in the chair, which was in its highest position, her little shoes sticking out over the seat and the top of her head barely touching the headrest.

But when the dentist poked about with a sharp instrument, scraping off some tartar, she disliked the feeling. She became frantic with fear, insisting that she didn't want to be helped, she didn't want any pink stuff, and no dolls or lollipops. She was going home.

"She has got some big cavities that have to be filled - we'd better give her gas," said the dentist.

Perhaps I am sentimental about Elisabeth. She is my sixth child and very sweet and tractable after two willful and perverse children. I have always found she responds to reason, though courage is perhaps her least noticeable virtue. Taking a splinter out of Elisabeth's finger amounts to a major operation.

But, no matter what happens, Elisabeth always manages to impress you with her worth as a person. Even in the cradle, she was not just anybody, she was Elisabeth. The idea of knocking her out with gas horrified me. It seemed undignified, and with someone as sensitive and... let's admit it... cowardly as Elisabeth was then, it might have bad after-effects.

"Please let me talk to her a moment," I told the dentist. Being a kind man, he let me.

So I told Elisabeth first to stop screaming because nobody was going to do anything she didn't want. That calmed her down considerably and I could wipe the big tears from her cheeks with the bottom of her dress.

Then I said to her that there were holes in her teeth that were full of germs that had to be killed. I said that the pointed instruments were directed at the germs, not Elisabeth. If she stayed quite still and opened her mouth wide, the dentist would kill the germs without urging her too much,  but if she made a fuss it would hurt a lot.

I reminded her of the time she got soap in her eyes in the bath tub because she wouldn't hold her head back. All this was listened to solemnly by Elisabeth, who was becoming her old self again and breathing normally.

"The doctor wants to put you to sleep," I said. "But I want you to be a brave person. What do you want?"

"Be a brave perthon," she lisped.

"Well, then, you must open your mouth," I explained. ""Every time it hurts, you may put up a finger and the doctor will stop, won't you, doctor?"

The dentist nodded. He explained the instruments to Elisabeth and let her examine them. He told her what he was going to do. Then he started to drill.

At first, it didn't work well. Elisabeth kept putting her finger up as soon as the dentist turned on the drill. So I told her that we would see how long she could keep her finger down. We counted, the dentist and I, and and at first she put her finger up before the count of ten. Then, every time the dentist approached a sensitive spot, he counted very loudly to distract her attention. The second time we counted to 19.

A gleam of ambition glittered in Elisabeth's eyes. She was beginning to enjoy the challenge. She managed to bear quite a lot of pain. We counted to 20, 26, 30, 40. The dentist was amazed and said he wished all children would behave that way.

In the end, Elisabeth was so proud of herself and her record of countings ("How much was it all together, mummy?") that she was actually happy. The pink stuff sprayed into her mouth completed her happiness, and she peeped in the mirror to admire her "silver teeth".

The whole thing was topped off by a big balloon from Woolworth's and now she asks: "Mummy, when are we going to the dentist again, please?"

Instead of a nightmare memory, it became a valuable experience for Elisabeth. It has taught her that there is pleasure in conquering fear and pain. This is far more valuable that the fact that her teeth are filled.

[Elisabeth became an M.D. and a Dean-Director of the National Health Service in London.]

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