Stealing and lying can be normal childhood behaviors. Parents.com's 'Ask Your Mom' advice columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., weighs in on how parents should react and when they should be concerned.

By Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.
February 04, 2020
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Illustration by Emma Darvick

Dear Missing Money Mama,

We may have plenty of differences across parenting, but we can probably universally agree that stealing and lying are against the moral codes we hope to instill. Our instinct might be to come down hard on the stealing and lying to send a loud and clear message, but this ironically may make it more likely to happen again. If we approach the incident from a teaching perspective and try to understand the "why" of the behaviors, we show our children they can come to us for help with dilemmas rather than resorting to stealing.

The easiest part of this situation is how clear-cut the solution is: these behaviors need addressing. Even though stealing and lying are clearly wrong, our response primarily depends on the child's age and developmental level (since they don't always match, such as for kids with developmental delays).

Young Children

Parents often fret about a child lying and what this may mean for their future, but lying is a developmentally normal childhood behavior. Children younger than 3 don't even understand the abstract concept of lying, so a 2-year-old caught red-handed saying, "it wasn't me!" doesn't even count as lying.

Between ages 3 and 7, even though children are starting to understand truth versus lies, they still easily confuse real and pretend. They may tell elaborate stories with no grounding in reality, but they do not intend these imagination exercises to deceive. "Stealing" also doesn't count as a criminal act in this age range since they are figuring out whose property is whose, and the boundaries can be confusing.

If your child is in this age range, they may have simply been problem-solving that they found out something they want costs a certain number of dollar bills, and they know where to find those—your purse! The look on your face and stern questioning about the missing money may have signaled that this idea made you upset so, of course, they deny doing what made you mad.

With these younger children, they are more likely to confess if you can show them you are not angry and they will not be punished. For example, "My money was right here in my purse until I left the room, and now it's gone ... I wonder what could have happened!" They don't have to come clean for you to use the opportunity to explain that taking the money is not allowed, and to review the importance of telling the truth even if they made a mistake.

Older Children

Even though children ages 8 to 12 have a better understanding of stealing and lying as wrong, they may play around with it and still end up as upstanding human beings in the world. For this age group, these behaviors can be part of testing out boundaries and experimenting with social rules. There's nothing criminal about it and it serves as yet another formative moment in our constant teaching of right versus wrong.

It can be helpful to view the stealing behavior as a sign of poor problem-solving rather than a moral metric. Maybe a friend at school wished they could have a new toy, and your kind child wanted to buy it for him ... with the money from your purse. This lens may help you respond less reactively, knowing that the behaviors are not a sign you have failed to teach morals, just a reminder of your ongoing job to practice problem-solving skills.

If your child is in this older age range, have a more in-depth discussion about how stealing and lying hurts other people and can cause bigger problems as they get older. They have likely not thought through the impact of their actions on others, so this can be an effective way to frame your teaching.

In your talk, figure out what motivated your child to take the money and then lie about it. There may be something deeper going on driving the behavior, like peer pressure or wanting your attention, that would be important to address. Regardless, it is also appropriate for a consequence that fits the behavior, such as paying you back the money they took, or returning whatever they may have bought with the money.

When You Should Worry

If your child is stealing and lying repeatedly, rather than experimenting with it in an isolated incident, look at what else is going on. Are there other concerning behaviors? If a child has a pattern of lying and/or stealing along with frequently getting in trouble at school, or having trouble making friends, and is struggling in different areas of life, there are deeper issues that need professional evaluation and intervention before these behaviors progress and become even more serious in adolescence.

Another warning siren? Lack of regret for behaviors they know are wrong and harmful. If a child continues the behaviors despite conversations about how others are hurt and does not appear remorseful, this is also a sign of needing professional help.

The Bottom Line

We can sometimes forget that our children have had much less time in the world to understand it and all of the social intricacies involved. Chances are this is yet another installment of either a child's impulse ("I see money and I want it!") or curiosity ("I wonder what will happen if ..."), which means you get to play detective, coach, and parent. Use this as a teachable moment to continue the lesson of right and wrong at any age.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns. 

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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