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Stealing Behavior in Children: Restitution and Consequences.

Updated on July 2, 2011

Monkey See Monkey Don't!

Parents know kids test limits

It is quite common for kids of all ages to test the limits we have as a society and on occasion a child will try to take something that doesn’t belong to them. Maybe they took it from another child or maybe they took it from a store. I am always curious about why a child took something that didn’t belong to them. When asked I don’t know is a common response for many kids and I believe them most of the time. I think it really comes down to poor impulse control and it seems to rarely be a well thought-out act.

Sometimes kids steal when they are on their own and other times they steal as part of a group. If a child is stealing because their peers are encouraging them to do it, then we know they really probably weren’t thinking because kids egging on each other on to do something off kilter is fairly common group behavior. But we still need to hold them accountable for what they have done. Either way, when a children steal, whether on their own or with their peers, they need to face the consequences of their actions.

Impulse Control?

Good parenting means avoiding name calling

For some parents it might be easy to freak out a little when they discover that dear little Johnny has sticky fingers. Still, the best response is to try to remain cool and not overreact. Obviously it’s important to let kids know that they need to respect other people’s property and that stealing is wrong but most importantly as parents we need to stay focused on the behaviour. One of the worst things we can do is resort to name calling and start referring to little Johnny as my son the thief. Even if we are doing this in a tongue in cheek manner it will likely further reinforce the behaviour. Many years ago a sociologist named Irving Goffman found that labels like this go a long way towards creating a negative identity and that stigmatized people (people who start to internalize the labels given them) have a hard time shaking the labels they are given. While avoiding labeling is recommended, it is not recommended that parents simply ignore the behavior. As parents we need to take the opportunity we are given to take a child's stealing behavior and turn it into a life lesson.

Another response that really isn’t helpful is to call the police. This is more of a last resort option because if you use good parenting skills you can find better ways to deal with the issue. Moreover, to some extent you are sending the message to your child that you don’t really know what to do so you would rather hand the matter over to someone outside of your family. What message does this send to your child? It is much better to show your kids you are in control and that you can deal with the problem without needing police involvement (some of my police friends assure me that while they can deal with these situations if they have to but they prefer parents try to work it out first before calling them). Do the police and your children a favor and take the matter into your own hands. If it becomes chronic then you might require some professional help, but not necessarily in the form a visit from the police. You don’t really want to unnecessarily have your child labeled as a young offender yet (again,refer to the earlier comment about being labeled stigmatized).

Use Your Good Parenting Skills and Launch an Investigation

One of the first things a parent needs to do when they think their child has stolen something is to find out where the item or items came from. When things start showing up in your house that you have never seen before and you know that you didn’t buy for them for your children you need to ask questions. Don’t assume the worst but be curious and follow up on any stories your child tells you. Good parenting skills means doing a little detective work of your own and starting your investigation.

As a child, this was the first thing my mother would do when something that she had never seen before appeared in our house. On one occasion my brother came home from school with a baseball glove. When my mother asked where he got it from he said Jimmy Clinton gave it to him in exchange for an apple. I am sure my mother thought this was a preposterous story so she decided to launch an investigation of her own. She called around and eventually found the Clinton’s unlisted phone number. After contacting Jimmy Clinton’s parents she learned the story turned was in fact true (I am sure she was relieved) but my mother still wanted my brother to return the glove. However, Jimmy Clinton’s father said that the boy made a bad decision and he would have to live with the consequences. I guess he figured it was a logical response for the choice his son had made. Years later I am not sure whether I am more impressed by this man’s good parenting skills or by my brother’s skills as a bargain shopper.

Stealing Behavior: Psychological Disorder or Life Lesson?

As parents, follow through is really valuable when children steal. Younger children, in the three to five year old range aren’t really going to get the moral lesson here, so trying to help them understand respect for property or guilt isn’t likely to go anywhere. You can, however, let them know it is not acceptable and that you don’t like what they have done. Remember to stay focused on the behaviour. In a situation where the child steals from a store it might be hard to get them to feel empathy for the store but sometimes this can work when a child steals from one of their peers. You can talk to them about how they might feel if something they are attached to was taken from them. In either situation, even for young ones the focus should still be on supporting them to fix their mistake and to make some kind of restitution to the person or business they have stolen from.

Older kids who are capable of moral reasoning can be talked to a little more in depth about the moral implications of their actions. For most parents it can come down to a simple explanation along the lines of that is not a moral value we believe in in this family and that is not the type of behaviour that makes us feel proud of you (Yah I know pack your bags junior you’re going on a guilt trip). It usually suffices to let your older children know that you are just really disappointed in the choice they have made. As much as you can, even when we know it was likely an impulsive act, it is helpful to always bring their behaviour back to being a choice and letting them know that the choice they made was a mistake. We want to encourage them to stop and think about what they are doing and we want to reinforce that they are always making choices.

So to sum up, the bottom line for parents is to stay calm and not over-react. It is unlikely your sticky-fingered little darling is manifesting a serious psychological disorder. Unless the stealing behavior becomes persistent, chalk this one up to being a good life lesson. It is important that we as parents are proactive and encourage our children to fix a mistake such as stealing. As parents, we need to follow through on consequences and support our kids make some kind of restitution. If the child is old enough to write you can also follow up on the incident by asking them to write out a brief explanation of what their mistake was, why it was a mistake, and what they will do differently the next time they are tempted to take something that doesn’t belong to them. You can even ask them to tell you what they think the consequences should be if they do it again.

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