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Teaching Your Child Not to Steal

How To Help Your Child Understand That Stealing Is Unacceptable

"When my 5-year-old son came home from school with change clinking in his pockets, I knew he was up to something," says Claude, father of Max. "My wife and I confronted him, and after a short time, he admitted he took the money from a little girl's lunch bag."

At one time or another, most young children will take something that doesn't belong to them. They believe everything is theirs. As adults we call it stealing, but do children really perceive it as such?

"Children in the preschool years are often mixed up in their real and make believe worlds," says Dr. Maurice Barbezieux, a child psychiatrist at Montreal's Sacré Coeur Hospital. "Adults will call it stealing, but children do not always see it like that. They don't yet have the understanding of the cause and effect stealing has. When they want something -- they'll take it. Many times they don't give it a second thought."

As parents, we know stealing is not an acceptable behavior. That's a fundamental law in all cultures and societies. Children may not have mastered all the laws of society, but they have to learn them. Until they do, they may take things that don't belong to them. How can you help your child to comprehend that stealing is unacceptable?

"A preschool child will begin to understand that taking an object that belongs to someone else is wrong from seeing our reactions," says Dr. Barbezieux. "Parents and other caregivers demonstrate their disapproval -- just as the owner of the toy will."

There are many reasons why a child might take something that doesn't belong to him, but three common reasons are impulse, peer pressure and the need for attention.

Impulse Stealing

-- The child may want a toy, and without giving its ownership a second thought, he takes it and puts it in his pocket. His action might be impulsive, but he knows it is not right and hides the object.

Peer Pressure

-- Children learn early to dare other children or to tell them they must prove themselves in order for them to fit in.

Attention Seeking

-- Lack of self-esteem coupled with personal, home or school problems sometimes cause children to steal. Even negative attention is attention, and these children desperately need to be noticed.

What to Do

It's important to make it clear to kids that stealing isn't okay, but it's just as important not to over-react. How can parents find the right balance?

"Start early, before an incident happens, by discussing what's acceptable and what isn't in your household," Dr. Barbezieux explains. "Tell your child what your beliefs are. Keep your discussions brief. Ask your child how he would feel in this situation. Try to get a sense of empathy for the owner. It's not a pleasant experience to have your things taken away from you, is it?"

Set your limits now before something happens. Values such as honesty, sensitivity and friendliness must be established as early as possible. Help them understand the concept of ownership. If you see your child take a toy away from a friend, immediately make him return it. Use this opportunity to teach about ownership, respect and sharing.

Discuss the consequences of stealing. Explain that stealing hurts people: the victim who lost a toy and the child who can't share a stolen toy both suffer. Teach your child that he won't be "in" with his peers if he steals. Help him select good friends who will support him and not push him to bad behaviors.

Model for your children how you would like them to behave. If you take pens and paperclips from your office, you're effectively teaching that stealing little things is okay.

Use storybooks and fables as tools to model, and give examples. Role-playing can transmit important messages to your child, all while having fun. Ask questions using why, when, what and how to get their thinking in gear.

"We talked to Max about taking things that didn't belong to him," says Claude. "We explained how that little girl's mother might punish her if she didn't have her money. It made Max feel bad to think he had caused her trouble."

"In a situation where your child has taken something, the best way to deal with it is by letting your child give back the item," says Dr. Barbezieux. "Let him feel responsible for his actions and take the consequences. Take away a privilege, and let him know this was very serious. But don't over-react or dwell on it [once you have dealt with the incident]."

Claude felt it was important for Max to return the money. "The next morning, we brought him to the principal's office to confess," he says. "Max gave back the money and faced the consequences of his actions."

Dr. Barbezieux notes that you should be patient and understanding with your child. "Depending on just what the child can understand and his maturity level, chances of a reoccurrence is high," he says. "Many children will do it again to test how their parents will react. Be consistent with your explanations and your expectations."

Learning about the right and wrong actions in life is a part of growing up. Remember to show support and the unconditional love you feel for your child. It's the behavior you don't approve of -- not your child.

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