Little fingers tend to be sticky, allowing foreign objects to mysteriously find their
way into little pockets. Before lamenting that you are harboring a little thief
in your house, take a moment to understand why children steal and how to handle
this common problem.
1. Understand why kids steal
Like lying, "stealing" is an adult
term that may not mean anything to young children. Candy found clutched in a
sticky fist after going through a checkout line or a toy car that turns up in
the pocket of a four-year-old after a visit to a friend's house is not proof
that your child is already a delinquent. To the preschool child, possession
means ownership. In a child's mind he has a right to anything within grabbing
distance. Children under four have difficulty distinguishing between "mine" and
"yours." Everything is potentially "mine." They don't know that palming a
piece of candy at the grocery store is stealing until you tell them so. In the
child's mind he has done no wrong until the parents pass judgment.
Many preschool children can't curb their impulses. They see the toy, feel
they must have it, and take it without any judgment as to the rightness or
wrongness of the action. Instead of guilt, they feel relief that their craving
is satisfied. The more impulsive the child, the more likely he is to help
himself to things.
Around five to seven years of age children develop a hazy notion of the
wrongness of stealing. They can understand the concept of ownership and
property rights. They come to terms with the reality that the whole world
doesn't belong to them and begin to understand the rightness or wrongness of
taking things that don't belong to them -- stealing. Also, by this age the
child may become a more clever thief. Still his deterrent is more the fear of
adult retaliation than an understanding of the immorality of stealing. Jimmy
may recognize that it's wrong for Jason to keep the baseball cards he
"borrowed," but the next day Jimmy may want to hang on to Jeff's prized cowboy
pistol and bring it home at the end of the play session.
Stopping petty stealing and teaching its wrongness may seem to some like a
smallie, but learning honesty in small matters paves the way for biggies later.
A child must learn to control impulses, delay gratification, and respect the
rights and property of others.
2. Practice attachment parenting
Because connected children are more sensitive, they are better able to
understand and respect the rights of others. These concepts sink in deeper and
at an earlier age. Connected children feel remorse when they have done wrong
because they develop a finely-tuned conscience sooner. It's easier to teach
values to attachment-parented children. These kids have the ability to
empathize and understand the effects of their actions on others. And they have
parents who are putting their time in, being with their children enough to
realize when they stray into these gray zones. Connected kids have an innate
respect for maintaining trust between people. Lying, cheating, and stealing
violate this sense of trust.
Because attachment parents know their children so well, they can read facial
and body language cues that reveal a child's hidden misbehavior. And because of
the parent-child connection, the child is more likely to accept the parents'
advice and values. Because they trust their parents, connected kids are also
more likely to come clean when confronted. They find it harder to lie about
their actions because they feel wrong when they act wrong and they know that
their parents can read that "suspicious look."
3. Lead them not into temptation
Children will take money from
family members almost as though it is community property. They may even
rationalize "I'll give it back when I can." Teach your children to keep their
financial affairs private. Money should be kept in a locked box which is stored
in a secret place. Anytime money is lent, an "IOU" should be required to help
them remember who owes what to whom. You should also keep your money
inaccessible, except for smaller amounts in your purse or wallet that must be
asked for. Sure family members trust one another, but give them credit for
being human and don't allow temptation in the path. If someone comes to us and
complains "Someone took my five dollars," we ask "Where were you keeping it?"
We don't bother detecting the perpetrator -- as we said above, we know
conscience is at work. And, we will not be put in the position of being
responsible for the safe-keeping of money for those old enough to do it
themselves. Siblings, after all, are not the only possible suspects. Our kids
have learned the hard way you can't trust everyone. This is in itself a good
lesson for life.
4. Teach ownership
Toddlers have no concept of ownership.
Everything belongs to a two-year-old. Between two and four a child can
understand ownership (the toy belongs to someone else), but may not fully
believe that the toy doesn't also belong to him. Even as young as two, begin
teaching "mine" and "yours." During toddler toy squabbles the parent referee
can award the toy to the rightful owner, but don't expect this concept to sink
in fully until around the age of four. Look for other opportunities to
reinforce the concept of ownership: "This toy belongs to Mary," "Here's Billy's
teddy bear," "Whose shoes are these?" As the child grasps the idea of ownership
and the rights that go along with it, teach the logical conclusion that ignoring
these rights is wrong.
Correct wishful ownership. "It's mine," insists the four-year-old whose
detective parents discover a suspicious toy in his backpack. "You wish the toy
was yours," replies the parent. "But now tell daddy who this toy really belongs
to." "Johnny," the child confesses. Capitalizing on this teachable moment you
reply, "If Johnny took your toy, especially if it was one you really liked, you
would feel very sad that your toy was missing. What would you want him to do?"
The best way to teach lasting values is to draw the lessons out of a child
rather than imposing them. You want the "give it back" idea to come from the
child if at all possible.
5. Correct the steal
Getting the thief to give back the goods
sometimes requires masterful negotiating. Encouraging and helping the child to
return stolen goods teaches not only that stealing is wrong, but also that
wrongs must be made right. If you find an empty candy wrapper, go ahead and trot
the offender back to the store with payment and an apology.
6. Identify the trigger
Find out what prompts the child to steal.
The child who steals habitually despite your teaching about honesty usually has
a deep-seated problem that needs fixing. Is the child angry? Does he steal to
vent the anger? Does the child need money and feel that stealing is the only
way he can get what he believes he needs? If so, offer an allowance. Help him
get odd jobs. Help the child learn work ethics so that he can earn the toys
instead of steal them. Most of the time a child who habitually steals is
suffering from a poor self-image and needs to steal to boost his worth or get
attention. As in handling all behavioral problems, it's often necessary to take
inventory of your whole family situation. Does your child need more
supervision? Perhaps, some redefining of priorities and reconnecting with your
child is in order.
7. Identify the child at risk to steal
Watch for these risk factors:
- Poor self-esteem
- Impulsiveness: strong desire, but weak control
- Generally insensitive to others
- Not connected
- Change in family situation, for example, divorce
- generally bored
- alone a lot
If you focus on helping your child deal with these risk factors, lying and
stealing should subside.
It's important to get to the bottom of stealing. If the problems behind
chronic stealing and lying are uncorrected, they tend to snowball. With
repeated misdeeds, the child convinces himself that stealing is not really
wrong. He desensitizes himself to his own conscience and to your teachings.
The child without remorse is at high risk for becoming an adult without
controls. With attachment parenting, even if a child is not "caught in the
act," he will punish himself sufficiently with the remorse he will feel. He
won't want to repeat wrong actions.
8. Praise honesty
The five-year-old finds
somebody's wallet and brings it to you. Praise him to the limit for his action!
"Thank you for bringing Mommy the wallet you found. Now let's see if we can
find out who it belongs to. I'll bet that person will be very happy you found
it, just like you would feel if you lost something special and someone returned
it." Avoid saying, "Thank you for telling the truth." Some children may not
even have thought of keeping the wallet, and you don't want to plant in their
minds the option of being dishonest. Whatever praise you give, convey the
message that your child did just what you expected.