Dealing with Stealing

If your child swipes something from a store, her school, or a friend, don't panic -- just learn the right response to this common situation.

Sticky Fingers

The first time my 5-year-old daughter, Arielle, came home from a playdate with a "gift" in her backpack, I thought it was sweet that her friend Amy had wanted to share her new barrettes. The second time, I was surprised that Amy had given Arielle the toy from her kids' meal. The third time -- when Arielle came home with furniture from Amy's dollhouse wrapped in her scarf -- it finally dawned on me that my child was stealing. With images of size-6x prison uniforms in my mind, I drove her back to her friend's house and insisted that she return the goods and apologize.

Like most kids, Arielle had sticky fingers as a toddler, when her philosophy was "What's mine is mine, and what's yours is mine too." But I assumed that by 5, she'd learned not to take things that didn't belong to her. In fact, stealing is perfectly normal for children this age, says family and child therapist Meri Wallace, director of the Heights Center for Adult and Child Development, in Brooklyn. "Five- and 6-year-olds are in the process of developing a conscience, but it can still be very hard for them to control their impulses when they see something they want," she says. "Although they know the rules intellectually, they haven't internalized them yet."

Stealing is not entirely impulsive, however. "Five- and 6-year-olds are outgrowing the belief that adults can read their mind, and they're exploring the idea that there are secrets they can keep to themselves," says developmental psychologist Gil Noam, Ed.D., a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "A 3-year-old may take a toy from his cousin's house with-out giving it a second thought, but a 5- or 6-year-old has usually done some planning," he says. "There's the anticipation, the hiding, and then justifying having the new object at home."

Another reason kids this age steal is to fit in with their peers. "They look around, see what other kids have, and feel bad if they don't have the same things," says Wallace, author of Birth Order Blues (Henry Holt, 1999). Five- and 6-year-olds are also likely to be influenced by television commercials that tout the trendiest toys. Stealing may seem like an easy way to keep up with the cool kids.

When Nicky Dempsey was 5, he would "borrow" things from his friends, his school, even the local five-and-ten. He also had a habit of "accidentally" picking up the tips left on tables at restaurants. "Once, I caught him walking out of the grocery store with a box of Fruit Roll-Ups down his pants," recalls his mother, Bobbi, of Hazle Township, Pennsylvania. "We talked to him about why it's wrong to take things that don't belong to you, and he eventually outgrew it about a year and a half later. But I was really upset about it at the time."

Although it's hard not to get angry if you see your child slip a candy bar into his pocket, it doesn't mean he's a bad kid -- or that you're a bad parent. However, if you make your child feel ashamed or humiliated, he'll learn the wrong message: that he shouldn't steal because he might get caught and yelled at.

You should view your child's stealing as an opportunity to teach him right from wrong -- concepts your kindergartner is grappling with, Dr. Noam says. Be matter-of-fact about the situation ("It's not right to take something without paying for it. You need to give it back and apologize"). Don't compare your child to a sibling ("Your brother never did anything like this"), but express your family values in a more positive way ("Stealing is not something we do in our family").

Even if you understand that stealing is part of a developmental stage, you still need to make it clear that theft is wrong in order for your child to stop doing it. Instead of downplaying her actions by saying, "I'll call Stacey's mom and tell her you took the Powerpuff doll by accident," be direct: "Taking something that belongs to Stacey and not telling her is stealing. We have to return it right away."

If you find something in your child's backpack that you suspect he might have stolen, make a neutral comment, such as "Mmm, I wonder where this came from." If he says he doesn't know, give him a second chance to confess ("I know you didn't have it when you left for school"). However, if you're certain that your child has stolen something, don't ask him -- he'll probably lie to save face. Simply acknowledge it ("I see you took the Game Boy"), and let him know that you realize how he feels ("It's okay to want it and wish it were yours, but it's not okay to take it"), Wallace suggests. Then find a way to repair the situation -- go back to the store or his friend's house to return the stolen item. If your child is too shy, you can apologize for him ("My son took this pack of gum, but he knows now that it was wrong").

"Kids are driven by their emotions, so it's helpful to find out what your child was feeling when she took something," says child and adolescent psychotherapist Joyce E. Divinyi, author of Good Kids, Difficult Behavior (The Wellness Connection, 1997). "Maybe she'd gotten in trouble or a friend was mean to her."

It's also important to help your child find alternative ways to deal with her impulses in the future ("You could have asked to borrow the glitter pen, or you could have talked to me about whether I could buy you one"). If the coveted item is something you can't afford, she'll still be less likely to steal if she can talk to you about what she wants. You might say, "I know it's hard not to have that because we can't afford it. Maybe we could put aside a little money each week to save for it."

Don't expect one heart-to-heart to end the pilfering. It may take several incidents for your child to get the behavior out of his system. "Desiring things that belong to other people is an issue that everyone must deal with throughout life," Dr. Noam says. However, for the vast majority of children, stealing is just a phase. As long as you don't freak out about it, this, too, shall pass.

When to Worry

Persistent stealing is often a cry for attention. "Try to look at the big picture," says child and family therapist Meri Wallace. If you're getting divorced, a new sibling has arrived, you've just gone back to work full-time, or someone in your family is ill, stealing may be your child's way of saying, "Remember me?" Once you realize this, you might say to your child, "I know I've been very busy lately. I'm wondering if you stole because you're mad that I'm not around as much. Anyway, I'll be sure to pay more attention to you now."

If you can't stop your little thief with repeated discussions; the stealing is occurring in conjunction with other antisocial behaviors, such as lying or cheating; or your child seems to be stealing in order to buy friendships, the problem may require help from a therapist.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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