As you and your child finish shopping, you discover in his pocket some candy he took from the store. You wonder, “Where have I failed? Is my child a potential criminal?”
While such feelings may be quite normal, they give no direction for dealing with the situation. A different perspective is needed.
Instead of asking who is to blame, ask yourself: “Why did he take something that was not his? What can I do to make this a learning experience?” It is important to understand that such behavior is not too unusual. You can safely guide your child through these problems if you first understand why he acts as he does and then take appropriate action.
Taking things that do not belong to them is common among children and they need the help of adults in acquiring the value of honesty. Never be indifferent or ignore such behavior, thinking the child will outgrow it without help or that he is only going through a “stage.” A school-age child seldom takes a particular object just because he wants it. Usually, there’s a deeper reason. Parents should look at the situation from the child’s viewpoint to gain insight into why he behaved as he did.
A variety of factors may apply:
Envy. Susie is envious of Sally’s new doll, and she wants one, too. When she sees one in the store, she tucks it under her sweater and takes it home.
Acceptance by friends. Johnny feels that unless he has a lot of marbles to trade, Sam won’t play marbles with him, so he steals to acquire more marbles. Sandra takes candy and small trinkets from the store to pass out to the other girls to win their friendship. To be daring enough to steal may be a ticket of acceptance into the gang for Jimmy.
No other way. Darrin sees many interesting and exciting toys in his world and has a strong desire to have them, just as his parents see things they wish to acquire. But Daddy is very careful with money. Darrin thinks Daddy won’t give him any money, so he steals because he wants something and feels he can’t get it any other way.
Spite. Brian is hurt because Steve pushes him down, so he takes Steve’s truck to get even. He does it with an “I’ll show you” attitude.
Age or stage. Matt takes a little car home from school because he wants to continue playing with it. “It’s mine at school,” he thinks, “so why can’t it be mine at home?”
These are only a few of the more common reasons why children steal. It is important to try to determine the cause for a child’s behavior if you desire to guide him toward more positive action. 1
During his earliest years, a child simply clutches whatever he can grasp as a part of natural curiosity. An infant’s first learning experience is through feeling and holding the things around him. By the time he is two or three, we manage to teach him not to touch dangerous objects, but he has not yet learned the clear distinction between “mine” and “thine.” Children begin to take things, then, simply because they like them. 2
In the process of teaching the child to discern what is his and what is not his, positive experiences are needed to help him develop a sense of possession. He should feel that some items truly belong to him: certain toys should have his name on them, and he should have a place of his own to keep them. Give your child a shelf, drawer, closet, or box where he can keep those things which are his alone.
Within the family, the child will learn to respect another person’s property when his own possessions are respected. If someone takes his things without his consent, he may feel justified in doing the same to others. In teaching a child to share, don’t be too forceful by making him give his toys to another child before he is ready to do so.
Three-year-old Mike screamed when his cousin Jimmy started playing with Mike’s new truck. A parent should say, “Jimmy, did you see the ball? Can you catch it? Good! Can you roll it back to me?” Having distracted Jimmy, the parent could give the truck to Mike and say: “This is Mike’s new truck. He wants to play with it now. Perhaps when you visit another day he will let you play with it.” Until Mike is ready to share, it is best to provide something else for the other child. Children usually share willingly after they feel real possession.
Becky had a difficult time sharing a new doll at school. To help her with this, the teacher gave Becky the doll when she first arrived and announced to the group, “Today the doll is Becky’s. She can play with it all day if she wishes. She may share it if she wants to, but she doesn’t have to. It’s hers alone.” As the teacher handed the doll to Becky, she said again, “It’s all yours. You don’t have to share it, but you can if you want to.” The teacher reminded the children several times that the doll was Becky’s to share only if she wished to. Before the morning was out, Becky was happily sharing the doll with the other girls with no prompting. Now it was hers to give and she enjoyed doing so.
Feelings of real possession make a sound basis for teaching the child “what is mine” and “what is thine.” When Matt takes a car from school, the parent should say, “The car belongs to the school just as this bike belongs to you. The car needs to be returned. If someone took your bike, wouldn’t you want him to return it to you?”
A parent needs to set a firm standard of honesty and the child needs to know that position. He should know his parents will not sanction dishonesty. If he does yield to temptation, he needs assurance they will not condemn him, although they disapprove of his actions. At the same time he feels a firm standard, he needs to know his parents will help him live it.
When children take small things that do not belong to them, some parents just overlook it. Contrary to their assumption, this is not a kindness to the child. The earlier the child gets help in dealing with his dishonesty, the better. He needs to learn the consequences of his deeds. If he continues taking what is not his, he may become adept at meeting his needs in this way and establish a pattern of behavior that can be very difficult to change.
When you catch your child taking something that isn’t his, be careful not to label him. Avoid using the words “stealing” or “thief.” This labeling only intensifies the problem and doesn’t promote positive behavior. Also, avoid the use of threats such as, “Don’t let me catch you doing that again.” He certainly won’t let you catch him again, but that doesn’t mean he won’t do it.
Approach the child with a concerned, not condemning, attitude. If you’re sure your child is guilty of a theft, don’t ask what you already know. Don’t say, “Did you take the money from the kitchen shelf?” Tell him about it instead. “The money you took from the kitchen shelf is not yours. It must be returned. If you need money, ask me and we will talk about it.” 3
If you discover your child has taken something from a store, state calmly and firmly that the item must be returned as soon as possible. Simply say, “The candy in your pocket belongs to the store. We will have to return it.” Take the child back to the store and have him give the candy back. This will likely be a very painful and tearful experience for the child. Immediately after he has returned the item, tell him it takes great strength and courage to do what he has just done and you’re glad he was able to do it.
Another alternative is for the child to pay for what he took. Perhaps the candy is half-eaten and is not returnable, or the child is so chagrined, anxious, and guilty over his misbehavior that paying for the item would be a better course of action. If his allowance is not sufficient, the parent should provide appropriate and reasonable ways the child can earn enough money to pay for what he has taken and also to have enough for some of his wants. (If the child has to use his entire allowance in paying back the debt, he may be driven back to stealing.) Say to your child, “If you need money, come and tell me. I will try and help you earn some if I can.”
These assurances need to be given repeatedly. Parents sometimes make the incorrect assumption that once a child is told he will remember. Don’t assume once you’ve corrected your child’s dishonesty the problem will disappear. There will probably be more than one incident you will have to deal with to help him learn to be honest.
Above all, a child shouldn’t feel he has lost your confidence and trust. Parents shouldn’t be shocked, hurt, or surprised when their children take things. Children need help in acquiring values of honesty, and if you are unduly upset and excited at your child’s misbehavior, you can’t see the situation from his position and you therefore can’t help him. 4
Too many parents are so embarrassed at their child’s behavior they don’t act in the child’s best interest. It’s often under these circumstances that the parent gives harsh punishment which is neither effective nor necessary. Parents are better able to control their feelings if they see such deeds as an opportunity to help the child learn this important value rather than as a personal threat. Realizing that most children do some “snitching,” parents can use these situations to help a child develop his honesty.
As a parent you should tell your child you are there to assist him in any necessary way through the crisis. He should never feel he has to deal with the problem alone. Assure him you will return to the store with him or will find ways for him to earn money to pay for the item. Express confidence in the child’s ability to correct the mistake. Say, “I can see you feel sorry about taking the candy. I’m sure you will correct this mistake and I will help you.” When he returns the item, your child may be so tearful that it is all he can do to hold out the article. The parent should help by saying, “He took this without paying for it and he’s now returning it. We are sorry this happened.”
What a child needs is parents who are understanding and who will help him uphold the standards of honesty. He needs parents who do not condemn or condone, but rather guide through example, love, and kindness.
Rudolf Dreikurs, Coping With Children’s Misbehavior (Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1972), p. 70.
Frances L. Ilg and Louis Bates Ames, Child Behavior (Harper and Row, Publishers, 1955), pp. 293–94.
Haim G. Ginott, Between Parent and Child (Macmillan Company, 1965), p. 62.
Human Relations Aid leaflet, “Lying and Stealing.” Mental Health and Information Services Divisions of the Department of National Health and Welfare, Ottawa, Canada.