My son has returned home from playdates three times in the last three weeks with toys, games or other small items that belong to his friends. He goes to great and dramatic lengths, that are totally transparent, to hide the ill gotten items from me - but he acts so guilty and weird that his misdeed is uncovered right away. I have made him return immediately to his friends house and return the item and apologize, but it seems like it just keeps happening. It just happened last night for the third time in three weeks, and I feel like the act of apologizing and returning the item isnt enough. He cries when he is confronted and his secretive actions let me know he knows its wrong, but how can I get him to stop?
Although it is always upsetting for parents when their children take things that are not their own, you should be rest assured that this behavior is quite typical, particularly for young children. Preschool children under the age of six do not fully understand the nature of private property. It is hard for them to comprehend that they do not have the right to someone's toy because young children are generally egocentric. They tend to think about situations from their own perspective and have difficulty taking the perspective of others. Punishment is not generally as useful during this time, but they can benefit from lessons on ownership and the concept of stealing.
School-aged children typically understand the nature of stealing and know that it is wrong, so this is an ideal time for parents to focus on setting limits and providing some modicum of punishment. Here are a few more steps you can take as a parent:
Teach your child about ownership - explain that people have a right to their own property and that it is wrong to take something that belongs to someone else. You can help your child to understand by using examples of their own favored things. "How would you feel if someone took your turtle?" You can also explain the difference between stealing and borrowing. We "borrow" things from the library and video store.
Teach your child appropriate ways to get what he wants - teach your child that there are ways to get what he wants without stealing. He can ask his parents for it, save up money, etc.
Praise and reward honest behavior - praise your child for open and honest behavior.
Apply consequences - if your child is school-age, decide what the consequences are for stealing and apply them immediately and consistently. You should tell your son why he is being punished each and every time before punishing him.
Help your son find ways of earning his own money - consider various chores around the house as an opportunity for him to begin to earn the money to help him get what he wants.
These are just a few ideas. I have included a few links to articles on child stealing below. Hope this helps.
L. Compian, Ph.D.
Education.com Expert Panel
I remember a similar question about kindergarten-age stealing posed to Education.com's "Ask the Child Psychologist" columnist Dr. Lisa Medoff. You can follow the link at the bottom to get to her entire answer. I think you will find it very helpful:
"It is common for many young children to pocket items that do not belong to them. This behavior is not usually indicative of a major problem, but it should be addressed as soon as possible.
Children of various ages usually have different reasons for why they steal. Younger children often take things they want because they do not yet have the understanding of what it means for an object to belong to another person. Sometimes they may pocket candy or other small items while you are in the store because they do not quite grasp the concept of money and purchasing. However, they may sense they have done something wrong, and will thus try to hide it from you. As children get older, they learn the rules of belonging and the concept of money, but may not have developed the impulse control that they need to stop them from taking something they want.
Here are some recommendations for dealing with a young child who is caught stealing:"
You are following her advice of having him return the items and apologize, but you might also attach additional consequences for subsequent thefts (such as no TV or electronic games for a day, etc.).
Dr. Medoff also recommends that you explain why stealing is wrong (and she gives some examples of how to do this with a young child), and suggests that parents make sure they aren't modeling behavior that is in contrast to the "don't steal" message (such as sneaking samples from food bins at the supermarket, or rejoicing in a cashier's mistake in your favor, etc.).