Preschool children often have trouble understanding the need to respect the belongings of others. With every year that they spend in preschool, surrounded by appealing items that belong to the school and to other children, they learn more about balancing what they want with the needs and rights of others, but these abilities are still a work in progress.

Preschool children do not yet have the brain development to always control their immediate desires and can act impulsively, shoving a coveted toy in their pocket or roughly handling a delicate item. Their level of brain development also results in them being quite self-centered, in that they have a hard time seeing the world from the perspective of others. They also may have difficulty understanding the idea of ownership, and may, in fact, have a tough time reconciling the concept of individual belongings with that of sharing (of which they are so often reminded in school).

If your child is taking and/or damaging the belongings of others, it does not mean that he is a bad kid or that he will soon graduate to more serious deviant behavior. It simply means that you must teach your child how to respect the belongings of others, and the earlier that you teach him how to do so, the easier it will be to correct this very common behavior. Here are some other guidelines to follow:

  • Do not make a big deal about items that are stolen or damaged. If you do, your child will only be learning a very effective way to get your attention. Instead calmly talk to him and explain how others feel when their belongings are broken or taken without asking permission. Make sure to connect it to your child’s experience, as children of this age need a lot of concrete practice putting themselves in someone else’s place. Say, “How would you feel if Joey took your [favorite item] and kicked it across the room? How would you like Joey to treat your things instead? Do you think Joey would like his things be treated like that, too? I know you can do that next time.” When you talk with your child in such a manner, you are helping him develop empathy, which serves as a strong basis for the development of good social skills. 
  • Teach your child how important honesty is to you. Have your child immediately return the item that was taken or tell the owner about the damage. Do not do this for your child. Practice ahead of time what your child will say. Do not jump into to explain what happened – let your child try on his own, even if he gets shy or starts to cry – just give him a chance to get it out. 
  • Try to get the owner of the item to tell your child how he or she feels about what happened. Then ask your child to repeat back what was said. Emphasize that you know your child did not make a good choice this time, but now that she knows how others feel when their things are not respected, you are sure she will make a better decision next time.
  • Practice at home. Do not let your child take things without asking, even if the behavior does not bother you. Develop consequences for taking things without asking and stick to them. Do the same for damaging items, and include behavior that could cause damage, even if it didn’t this time. The consequences should not be intended to punish the child, but to teach him, so make sure the consequences that you choose involve repairing what was broken or making it up to the person whose items were taken.
  • Another thing that you can practice at home is teaching your child how to ask to borrow something in a polite manner. Give her simple phrases and questions, such as, “May I please look at your book?” or “May I please play with your ball?” Practice saying “Thank you,” if the other child agrees. Most importantly, practice saying, “That’s okay, I understand,” if the other child says no. Make sure your child understands that when an item belongs to someone else, it is that person’s choice to share it or not, and your child is not entitled to use something just because she wants to, even if she asked for it politely.
  • Make sure that your children always see you respecting the property of others. Do you politely ask to borrow something that you need, or do you just take it? If you accidentally damage something that belongs to someone else, how do you handle it? Are you honest about the mistake, offering to repair or pay for the damage? You are your child’s primary role model, so remember that your child is always watching, listening, and learning from you.
  • Sometimes children engage in destructive behavior in order to get your attention, so make sure that you are giving your child a lot of positive attention, especially when they are showing respect to other people and their things. 

All of us, adults included, find the belongings of others to be much more attractive than anything that we own. Things that belong to others are exciting precisely because they are new and unfamiliar. Preschool children are constantly experimenting with the rules and limits of their worlds, where so many things are new and exciting, and one of the many lessons that they need to learn is how to respect the belongings of others. If you can calmly address the situation with immediate consequences, you child will soon come to regulate his own behavior when it comes to how to treat the property of other people.