Blink—And They're Grown

Parents, Families and Child Care

How to Handle Stealing With Young Children

When a child steals something, it can be horrifying for their parent. But there's a lot you can do about it.I teach Sunday School, and each month we focus on a particular virtue. Recently, we’ve been talking about honesty. As I listened to the Children’s Minister speak about parents teaching their children to be honest, I remembered when my son, Jared, was 3-years-old and we were vacationing in Key West. As we were leaving a surf shop, I noticed Jared had a seashell magnet in his hand, so I asked him about it. He looked up at me and innocently replied, “I liked it mommy, so I took it.”

My husband marched Jared into the store to return the item. But the clerk, observing my precocious little boy, said Jared could keep the magnet. I knew the clerk had good intentions, but what had he taught my son by allowing him to keep the magnet? I was frustrated. We were trying to do the right thing, but instead the guy gives my son the very item that was stolen. Being a young, inexperienced mom, I didn’t insist Jared return the object.  Looking back, I can see how this created confusion for Jared.

A few years later in kindergarten, Jared brought home a bright blue quartz crystal to show me. A day later, the teacher sent a note home to parents that a classmate had brought an item in for show and tell and that this precious object was missing. I asked Jared about the crystal and who it belonged to. He explained that the rock was so beautiful that he wanted it. My husband and I explained to our young son the reasons why it was wrong to take things that didn’t belong to him. Jared returned the quartz along with a note of apology to the child he had taken it from.

Sticky fingers struck again when Jared was seven. I happened to see a wrapped DVD in my car and said to Jared, “I wonder where this came from.” He replied that he’d picked it up when we were at the store. I insisted Jared return the stolen merchandise and apologize. While I was upset about Jared’s stealing, I knew this was a teachable moment about right or wrong for him. I pulled myself together and calmly explained to him that it is not right to take something without paying for it.

Two weeks later, I noticed not one, but 2 unwrapped videos in my car. This time, I was feeling exasperated and angry because I suspected Jared was at it again. I gave him the benefit of doubt and asked him if he took these and he replied yes.  Horrified that I might be raising a thief, I called the store and asked to speak to the manager. I informed him that we will be returning the merchandise and asked that he talk to my son about the consequences of stealing. My heart broke as my son’s eyes welled up with tears as he listened to the man. I didn’t want Jared to grow up thinking he was a bad child, but I needed to convey to him that stealing was wrong.

I was beginning to question my parenting. I was ashamed because I thought my kid was the only one that was stealing, but what I came to realize was that stealing is normal for young children as it’s hard for kids to control their impulsivity. I also learned that I was handling the situation appropriately by acknowledging and holding my child accountable rather than looking the other way. Both managers of the store thanked me as they exclaimed most parents wouldn’t have brought their children back to return the stolen items.

I was seeing a pattern with Jared that when he saw something he wanted, he would take it regardless of who it belonged to. I learned to give Jared options such as if you wanted that video, you could have asked me. I also explained to him that if I do not get it for him, we could work together to find a way for him to save money for it.

Teaching children to be honest takes a lot of patience. But when they finally do, thank goodness!

– Diann

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