Dealing With Stealing

Littlethief 315

While many a parent is mortified when her child steals, it is not out of the range of what some young children do. And it doesn’t mean you have a kleptomaniac on your hands.


The 4-year-old has a firm handle on the concept of ownership, but her grasp on her impulse control can be shaky. Sometimes she sees something, and her desire trumps her ability to listen to the little voice inside that tells her she can’t have it just because she wants it.


But when an elementary-schooler appropriates something that isn’t hers, you have to take a closer look at what might be going on. The 7-year-old who steams might be giving her parent a wake-up call. Before this dishonest behavior becomes a pattern, the stealing should be seen as a message that she needs something. She might not even know what she needs, but whatever it is, she doesn’t know how to ask for help.


The preadolescent who steals is scarier business. While she may know the difference between right and wrong, stealing maybe the accepted modus operandi of her peer group. The child is torn between her loyalty to the values of her posse and to her family values. But stealing of this sort is antisocial behavior, which can have some serious and longer-lasting repercussions.


Here are a few tips for dealing with stealing:


• Recognize stealing is a sign your child needs something. Try to figure our what is motivating the act. Have the discussion with your child about how to meet her needs.

• Stay calm. If you get very angry or lose your temper … your child may get just what he or she is looking for: your attention. A jumbo-size reaction may compound the offense, as it may drive your child to lie about the details just to escape your wrath.

• Never tell a child she will go to jail. First of all, it isn’t true. Second, fear is not the best teacher. Learning happens when the child experiences the consequences for her behavior.

• Make the consequences proportional to the stealing. A consequence should make the child uncomfortable, even unhappy, so that she will listen to her little voice the next time she is tempted to steal. The child who steals gum, should pay back the store for what she took, delivering the money and making the apology in person. … Be sure to require your child to make amends herself.

• When it’s over, let it be over. Your trust may have been violated, but your child needs you to move on and to learn to trust her again.


— Excerpted from “You’re Not the Boss of Me! Brat-proofing Your 4- to 12-year-Old Child” (Harper Paperbacks, May 2010). The book includes many more tips about stealing and other behavior concerns. Betsey Brown Braun is a renowned child development and behavior specialist, parent educator and mother of triplets.