You answer the phone. There's a police officer on the other end of the line telling you that your son just walked out of the corner market with a six-pack of Pepsi under his jacket without paying. Driving to retrieve your son, you wonder, is shoplifting just kid stuff? Or is my son diving headlong into a life of crime?

Any parent in this situation should first take a deep breath. Most likely, this first shoplifting incident doesn’t signal trouble ahead.

Shoplifting is sometimes viewed as an adolescent rite of passage, albeit an illegal one. The National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) reports that 24% of apprehended shoplifters are teens, aged 13-17 years old. Teens steal on an impulse or for a thrill. Peer pressure is often cited as the reason. While you might feel motivated to send your son to the doghouse, even McGruff the Crime Dog, icon of the NCPC, recommends that you don’t overreact to the first offense. That said, do take the following steps to convey your concern to your child:

  • Decide on the consequences beforehand. One in four shoplifters caught is a teen. Think about how you’d handle things if your child was caught shoplifting. Be sure to share your thoughts with your spouse. It’s important to present a united front if an incident does occur.
  • Remain calm at the scene of the crime. Confronting your child will only add to the humiliation and embarrassment he is probably feeling. Get all the facts. Listen to the authorities and agree to take an active role in the solution.
  • Allow a cooling off period. Best not to unload on your child the minute you reach your driveway. Take time, at least a day, to let everyone cool off before discussing the incident and laying out the consequences of his actions. Be firm, but caring.
  • Follow through. Important life lessons will be lost if you don’t follow through on your disciplinary actions. Keep your word.

The National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP) says there are ways to keep your child on the straight and narrow, and offers these tips for helping your child to stay on track:

  • Be a positive role model. Kids are smart and they pick-up on things we may not even think about. For example, if you are undercharged for something and you are aware of it, go back to the store and let them know. If the cashier forgets to ring up an item and you notice it, point it out. Use these situations to be a role model for your child.
  • Set clear rules. Now that he has committed this offense, the rules may have to change. (Clearly “hanging out” or going to the mall without a parent is out for a while.) You trusted him with a privilege and he did not live up to that trust so now things have to change, even if only temporarily. Give him an opportunity to regain your trust – engage him in establishing the new rules and empower him to make changes for himself.
  • Stick to the facts. Remind your child of the immediate and definite consequences of shoplifting to others, herself and her future. Reinforce why stealing (in any form) is wrong and how her life will be better for her when she doesn’t compromise her honesty and integrity.
  • Be a loving parent. Be open and understanding so your child will come to you with difficult issues or with mistakes she made without feeling you will be unfairly judgmental or punitive. Help give her the self-confidence to resist peer pressure when temptation or opportunity arises.
  • Know your child's friends. By staying involved with your kids and their activities, by knowing where they are going, what they are doing, who they are with and when they will be home goes a long way toward keeping your kids from becoming involved in shoplifting.
  • Encourage your child to be involved. Encourage your child to participate in sports or other group activities which introduces her to a better group of kids and keeps her busy vs. bored.

Here are NASP's answers to some commonly asked questions from parents about teen shoplifting:

If I give my child more money, won’t that stop her behavior?
No, because a lack of money is not necessarily the reason your child shoplifted – people shoplift for many reasons but money, or lack thereof, is rarely the key factor in the decision to shoplift. Remember, there are people who have all the money and opportunity in the world who DO shoplift yet there are people who are nearly destitute and have little opportunity for a better life who DO NOT shoplift, who would never even consider shoplifting. Shoplifting is not about the item, it is about the act.

What if my child asks “Did you ever shoplift as a kid?”
Be honest, tell her the truth and share what happened to you and what you learned from the experience.

What if my child says “You took that bath rug without paying”?
Yes, and I now understand that I too used irrational thoughts to justify my actions, even though I knew they were wrong just like you. I have made a commitment never to do that again. And I’m sorry that I set a poor example for you.

Shoplifting is a serious offense, but most teens are experimenting when they try it—never believing they’ll get caught. When they are, they feel remorse and seldom repeat the offense. So take those sticky fingers seriously, but know that you probably don’t have a future mobster on your hands—just a child who needs help learning from his mistakes.

For more information on NASP's Youth Educational Shoplifting Program, click here.