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Your child steals something: How do you feel? Shocked? Betrayed? Embarrassed? All of the above?
How about defending yourself to anyone who will listen: “But we’ve had family home evenings about that!”
Many children steal something at some point—it’s not as uncommon as you may think. Parenting experts have suggested effective ways to handle stealing.
Children, young children especially, do not see stealing as a moral choice. For many children stealing may be a function of circumstance: They want an object they feel they cannot get any other way, and they simply do not think things through.
“Children, young children especially, do not see stealing as a moral choice.”
Less Innocent Stealing
The older a child gets, the more “moral” the choice to steal becomes. It may also become more difficult for parents to confront an older child about stealing. Hurt, resistance, or embarrassment might cause us to avoid talking to the child, hoping the problem will go away on its own. However, confronting stealing as soon we notice it is our best chance for teaching our child.
Keep It Simple
To the relief of many of us, there’s no need to hold a lecture series on stealing when a child steals. Dr. Glenn Latham urges us to avoid getting caught up in moralizing over right and wrong when a child steals something. Most of the time we, just need to make our expectations known: for example, “I expect you to pay for things you take.”
Keep It In Perspective
Children do not see stealing as a moral choice “Fortunately, as with lying, early stealing—that is, between the ages of four and six—is almost always simply a childhood phase. If we handle it matter-of-factly, without too much anger, invariably most children quickly outgrow the stealing phase” (Cline & Fay 227).
Recognize Chronic Stealing
Chronic stealing is a different situation: It “occurs when a child is feeling empty or unloved” (Cline & Fay 227). In these cases, we need to get to the underlying cause of the problem. Are there self-esteem issues that need to be addressed? Is the child simply asking for attention? If we address only the stealing, we may be putting a bandaid on an infected wound. Sometimes the needed treatment will be spending more time with a lonely child or expressing love for a child who feels undervalued.
Dr. Latham suggests implementing consequences (235), allowing the responsibility for the action to rest on the child. If the situation doesn’t offer natural consequences ,you may need to create some: “Each time you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you’re taking away the privilege of riding your bike for 24 hours. But if you can keep yourself in control, you can ride as much as you want.”
Teach If You Can
A child’s stealing can present you with an opportunity to discuss what’s meant by mine and yours, as well as why stealing isn’t ultimately good for anyone in a community. Though you’ve covered it many times before, Sarah might be mature enough to understand it this time. So go ahead and have that particular family home evening yet again!
Praise When You Can
Acknowledge appropriate behavior (Latham 237). Sometimes children don’t realize what they are doing wrong or right until we signal to them which is which. Tuning in more to good behavior will likely lessen the bad. “Son, I know some of your friends have been taking candy from X-mart, but you haven’t. That’s honest and mature; I respect you for it.”
Don’t Ask If You Know
Although it may seem counterintuitive at first, Dr. Latham suggests parents avoid questioning the child if they know he is at fault (232). “Did you take anything from my top drawer while I was gone?” is unnecessary if he obviously did. It seems like asking is offering the child a chance to be honest, but it may be tempting him to lie further—only adding to the problem.
We might be seething inside, wondering how our child could let us down, or worried about what the future holds for this child who gives in so easily to temptation. However, weeping, wailing, and gnashing our teeth might make a child feel like there’s no hope. And for some children the negative reaction can reinforce the behavior: “Hey, at least Dad talked to me.” Even though you might not be feeling calm, a calm, simple interaction is most effective.
Richard C. Edgley shared a story about the simple but effective way his father taught him not to steal. In his youth, after working the summer at a resort, Bishop Edgley made the 185-mile trip home in an old, worn-out car. In the backseat he’d put three towels from the lodge where he’d worked. In his view the towels were not something he’d stolen, but rather “a symbol of a full summer’s work at a luxury hotel, a rite of passage” (73).
However, his father could see things from a different perspective, which he shared with his son in a way that lasted a lifetime. Without moralizing or preaching, but making his expectations clear, he merely said with a disappointed look, “I expected more of you” (72). Bishop Edgley made the long trip back to the hotel to return the towels.
Our child probably doesn’t see stealing for the moral error that it is. If we’re confronted with this behavior we do not need to panic. Like Bishop Edgley’s father, we can teach our child honesty through our example and our expectations.
Cline, Foster, and Jim Fay. Parenting with Love and Logic. Colorado Springs, CO: Pinion Press, 2006.
Edgley, Richard C. “Three Towels and a 25-Cent Newspaper.” Ensign November (2006): 72-74.
Latham, Glenn I. The Power of Positive Parenting: A Wonderful Way to Raise Children. Logan, UT: P&T Ink, 1994.
Young, Richard K., Sharon Black, Michelle Marchant, Katherine J. Mitchem, and Richard P. West. “A Teaching Approach to Discipline: An Alternative to Punishment.” Marriage & Families, August (2000): 9-15.