Parenting Solutions: Stealing (page 3)
Takes things from peers or family members without asking and knows it to be wrong; shoplifts or steals
The Change to Parent For
Your child understands the value of honesty and realizes that stealing is wrong, and her actions match her conscience and your family values.
You see your child take a candy bar from the store and put it in her pocket. You notice your daughter put her friend's Barbie under her jacket as she leaves the playgroup. You find a video game in your son's closet, and know it doesn't belong to him. Your child has everything he could possible want, so why would he steal? Do you have the makings of a kleptomaniac on your hands? Now what is a parent to do?
Discovering that your kid has stolen something is guaranteed to shake even the calmest parent. Be assured that stealing is far more common than you might realize—especially among the younger set, who still have a flimsy grasp of ownership and an underdeveloped conscience. It's not until between five and seven that kids usually understand the hurtful effects of stealing. But once they grasp that stealing violates someone's rights and can result in serious legal action against them, the problem becomes much more serious. And stealing has become a troubling new youth trend.
Store owners tell me shoplifting is so common that they are forced to install pricey security cameras and hire guards—youths are always the biggest offenders. In an attempt to curtail the problem, malls across America now demand that parents accompany their kids. School libraries are installing security systems to detect book theft. Principals complain that one of the biggest discipline issues is having to deal with students stealing from one another. (Hint on this one: tell your child to leave those expensive electronic gadgets at home!) Research also finds that most kids don't steal out of financial need or greed: they typically have more than they could ever need or want. Although stealing is a common childhood problem, it should never be allowed. The impact on your child's conscience, reputation, and honesty quotient is just too great. One thing is certain: how you react can be either destructive or productive in helping your child learn right from wrong and stop or repeat this troublesome behavior. Here are six solutions to nip this troublesome behavior in the bud ASAP.
Pay Attention to This!
Although stealing is highly inappropriate and should never be allowed, it is a typical part of growing up and does not necessarily connote a more serious problem. However, seek the help of a trained mental health professional if you notice your older child exhibiting these warning signs:
- Your child's stealing episodes are increasing in frequency, or the stolen items are much more expensive.
- Your child displays other worrisome behavior problems (such as truancy, impulsivity, defiance, setting fires, cruelty to animals, and signs of depression)
- Your child has no sense of shame, regret, or guilt about stealing. He doesn't think stealing is wrong.
- Your instinct says something is not right, and your worry has lasted too long. Get help!
Six Strategies for Change
- Model honesty. Start by assessing your daily honesty example. For instance, do you ever eat a small "sample" from the grocery store's candy bin without paying, take from a restaurant or hotel a small "souvenir" that was not meant to be taken, or bring a few supplies home from your office? If so, think about the message it's sending to your kid. Then commit yourself to improving your example. The best way our kids learn honesty is by observing our own behavior and expectations.
- Calmly confront and assess your child's intention. The first step is to try to determine answers to the five essential "W" questions: what happened, where and when did the incident take place, who was your child with, and why did your child steal. (Hint: do keep in mind your child's age and stage of moral development. Young children often have problems separating "real" from "make-believe," so they often fabricate stories and do not intentionally lie or steal.) Unfortunately, asking straight out "Why did you steal?" usually gets you nowhere. A better approach is to begin by simply describing what you believe happened and how you feel about it. Try to stay calm and not overreact. You'll be more successful in getting your kid to open up. Here is an example: "Tim, I was upset to find a video game that doesn't belong to you in your closet. So what are we going to do about this shoplifting?" Don't accuse your child of stealing or label her a thief. Accusations never solve anything, and your child may lie to avoid punishment or your disapproval. Just take it for granted that you have a problem and deal with it together.
- Boost honesty and review why stealing is wrong. Make sure your child understands why stealing is not right and why it defies your family's moral standards. Be brief and stick to explaining why stealing is wrong. For example: "Taking something that doesn't belong to you without asking is very wrong. We do not take things that don't belong to us. We need to be able to trust each other. I expect you to respect other people's property and always ask permission before you borrow something that is not yours." Young kids often have difficulty grasping the difference between "borrowing" and "taking," so you might need to explain the concepts of ownership and respect for property. For an older kid, discuss possible consequences, such as losing friends, developing a bad reputation, losing people's trust, and getting into trouble with the law. Mention that some stores have a zero-tolerance policy and will call the police. Plan to review honesty frequently over the next few weeks with your child, so that she not only understands your expectations but also incorporates the virtue into her daily actions. A one-time honesty talk will never be enough to create long-lasting behavior change.
- Reprimand and reflect on impact. Most kids don't usually stop to think about the hurtful effects of stealing, but need to learn the full impact of its consequences. The trick is to try getting your child into her victims' shoes so that she realizes it's upsetting to have your personal possessions or retail assets taken away. With a younger child, try play-acting the scene by using a favorite toy. After "stealing" her toy ask, "How would you feel if somebody stole your toy? Would it be fair?" With an older kid you might ask, "Pretend you're the victim, and you found out all the money in your wallet has been stolen. How would you feel? What would you want to say to the person?" Kids will always be torn between what they want to do and what they should do. But posing the right questions can help activate your child's conscience so that she recognizes why stealing is wrong, the impact it has on others, and that you expect honesty.
- Require a restitution to right the wrong. Make sure that your child realizes not only why stealing is wrong but also how to make it right. The best punishment is generally to require the offender to apologize to the victim and return the stolen item. It makes no difference if the stolen item is a ten-cent pack of gum or a pricey video game: it must be returned. (It's usually best if you accompany your child.) If the theft occurred at a store, brief the store owners so that a sympathetic clerk doesn't excuse your kid from the deed. And then have your kid—not you—do the apologizing to the clerk. "I'm sorry I took [name the item]. I know it's wrong, so I'm bringing it back." If the clerk speaks to you (and most times they do), redirect the focus back to your child. The key here is for your child to learn that she is accountable for her actions and will be the one who is doing the restitution. If the item is now damaged or no longer returnable, your child should pay the cost. You may have to cover her expenses at the time, but then make her responsible for paying you back through her allowance or additional assigned chores. Usually bringing the item back to the store, friend, or school is a strong enough lesson, and no further punishment is required. Beware: find out in advance if the store requires police intervention for any theft. Some stores are required to call the police, and you may have a legal issue on your hands.
- Be vigilant and dig deeper. If you suspect that your kid is continuing to steal, then monitor her behavior more closely. You may need to accompany her into a store if you feel she can't be trusted; you may even need to lock away certain items in your home. Most important, you need to figure out what is prompting your child to steal. Although kids often steal just to see if they can get away with it, the behavior may be signaling a more deep-seated need that is not being met. Talk with adults whose opinions you trust for new insight. Here are a few of the most common reasons. Check those that apply to your child or situation:
- Traumatic change in the family, such as a divorce, a remarriage, or a move, that makes your child crave attention or need to vent unresolved feelings of fear or anger
- Attention deficit, impulsivity, or insufficient self-control (though don't use those to excuse stealing)
- Insensitivity, lack of empathy, and failure to realize (or care about) the victim's hurt
- Failure to grasp the concept of honesty and ownership, weak or lacking conscience
- Lax rules about ownership in your home
- Peer pressure and the need to "fit in" and gain group access, a dare from a peer
- Attempt to seek revenge or to get back at someone who has hurt her (could be a parent as well as a peer)
- Thrill-seeking, risk-taking behavior; seeing if she can get away with it
- Naïveté—thinks she won't get caught or that stores can afford their losses
- Substance abuse habit (alcohol, smoking, drugs, steroids, or gambling)
Once you discover why your kid is stealing, it's time to develop a well thought out solution. For instance, if you think your kid is shoplifting as a means of gaining favor with peers, then you'll need to help her both find friends who will nurture her character and learn to stand up to her peers. Identify one solution you can use to remedy the problem, and commit to doing that with your kid. If the stealing does not stop or increases, then it is time to seek the advice of a trained mental health professional. Please don't wait any longer.
One Parent's Answer
A mom from Columbus shares:
Our son was caught stealing CDs at a music store, and we were mortified as well as baffled because he had more than enough money to buy them. We told him how disappointed we were and insisted he take the CDs to the store and apologize to the owner. The man was great and told my son how much money he loses each month in shoplifters. I could see my son had never considered the owner's perspective. That owner's talk with my son stirred his conscience better than any lecture I could ever give. I'm so glad I made him go back to that store.
What To Expect By Stages And Ages
Preschooler Kids at this age begin to respect things that belong to others, but still have a weak sense of ownership and will trade property. This is the age of imaginary playmates and make-believe, so expect for them to use wishful thinking ("The truck is mine" really means "I wish the truck were mine") and to fabricate stories in their favor. Taking something is more a matter of seeing the object they want at the moment and is not intentional. Their inability to control their impulses and "stop and think" makes shoplifting common at this age. Don't treat an incident of stealing as a crime, but instead as the opportunity to teach a strong moral lesson.
School Age Although respect for property is still developing, children at this age understand that stealing is wrong, and a truer understanding of the hurtful nature of stealing begins to develop. Although younger children steal items for immediate use, school-age kids now steal "for keeps." The most common reasons for stealing are low self-esteem or lack of friends, and taking things is done to try to "buy" or impress a buddy with the stolen item. Stealing and lying are more common in boys and occur most often in kids ages five to eight.88 Fear of parental disapproval is the strongest deterrent to stealing.
Tween Internal motivations of conscience and guilt begin to develop, so children now fully understand that stealing is wrong, and it becomes an intentional act.89 Peer pressure and "fitting in" play a big part in shoplifting. A survey of almost a thousand nine- to fourteen-year-olds found that 36 percent feel pressure to shoplift.90 Beware: kids this age can become highly skilled at stealing and even proud of their accomplishment.
Parent Alert: Could Your Child Be Shoplifting?
In a survey of over twenty thousand middle school and high school students, 47 percent of all respondents admitted having stolen something from a store in the previous twelve-month period.91 More than a quarter of high school students said they had committed store theft at least two times. Take shoplifting behavior seriously! Many states arrest juvenile offenders. One in four kids shoplift, and your best defense is to catch this behavior now. Here are warning signs from the San Diego Police Department and Burbank Police Department in Illinois that your child may be shoplifting:92
- Price tags or package wrapping is hidden in the trash.
- Goods show up in your house that you do not remember purchasing, or your child is wearing new clothes or carrying electronic items that you know she didn't have the money to buy.
- Your child gives pricey gifts to friends or you and is secretive about extra income she gets.
- Your child leaves the house with an empty backpack or wears baggy clothes or puts on a jacket when it's warm outside (which could be indicative of another problem).
- Money or property begins disappearing from family members.
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