One day, you discover that something is missing from your desk or purse. You suspect your child.
One day, your child suddenly has things you can’t figure out how she acquired. She says a friend gave them to her or that she found them. But you doubt her story. You think she stole them.
One day, a parent complains that something is missing from her child’s cubby or backpack, something you or the parent has seen in the hands of your own kid.
Why do otherwise good children take things that don’t belong to them? And what should you do when you find out?
Small children take things for a lot of reasons. Very young children and children without a lot of social experience take things because they don’t know it’s wrong to do that. They see something. They want it. They put it in their pocket. They act on impulse because they don’t have much control over their impulses and they “want what they want when they want it.” The concept of ownership is also poorly developed. As any two-year-old who has ever shouted “mine!” will tell you, if you can get it into your hand, it’s yours.
Slightly older kids might take things simply to confirm the rules. A child might pocket a trinket off your desk, even let you know he’s taken it, just to see what reaction this gets. He’s really asking you to tell him that stealing is wrong. A child at this stage is at war with himself. He knows what’s fair or what’s “the rule,” but his desire for whatever it is he took is greater than his cognitive ability to control his actions. He also finds it easy to delude himself into thinking this item really is his or that taking it really is fair (to himself).
Young children who are a little bit older than that are now fully aware of right and wrong and fully aware of social conventions about possessions. They understand that a toy can belong to someone else exclusively and that it’s wrong to take it. The child at this stage is no longer testing the rules; she knows them very well. So when the impulse to steal that toy overwhelms her, she will take it sneakily, maybe even implicating someone else. She will hide the toy so no one knows she took it, instead of playing with it openly. When the toy is discovered in her possession, she may pretend to not know how it got there.
Children who are older yet – in elementary school or even middle school – take things for a variety of reasons. They may steal to get back at the person they’re stealing from. They may steal because it seems dangerous and exciting. They may steal to fit in with a group of other kids who have made stealing their recreation. They may steal because they believe they “deserve” what they’re stealing and the person who has it now doesn’t need it or needs it less.
How you react to stealing depends to some extent on the age and understanding of the child.
- For very young children – kids under the age of three – simply recovering the item and reuniting it with its rightful owner may be enough, no need to say much of anything.
- For older children still learning the rules – those three- and four-year-olds – a gentle explanation of the rules, along with a request that the child return it to its owner – and help to do that, if necessary – will teach the rule without making a federal case of things.
- For the oldest preschoolers – older fours and five-year-olds, probably – who steal intentionally and with full understanding of their actions, a guided reflection on fairness and the feelings of others is in order. What’s needed here is a reminder of the child’s responsibility to observe and preserve the rights of each member of the classroom community, without putting her own rights above others’. This is a huge moral leap, that requires careful guidance on the part of adults.
- For school-age children – some kindergarteners and most older children – stealing is a bigger deal and should be evaluated thoughtfully. Is the child immature and acting “like a four-year-old”? Or is stealing part of a larger pattern of bullying, intimidation, and cheating? How you answer these questions determines if this is something you can resolve through careful monitoring and re-teaching or if you should seek professional help. The child at age 9 or 10 who steals for thrills, retribution, or to feel powerful needs serious guidance to find a more socially acceptable path.
The bottom line is this: discovering that a child has taken something that doesn’t belong to him probably is not so much a crime as a teachable moment. Be grateful for the opportunity the child’s action provides to discuss with him and with the entire class what it means to be fair and respectful of one another. Be grateful for this insight into your child’s thinking and social interactions, so you can set things straight.
Most of all, pay attention. Children need your guidance to become the sort of people others trust.
© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Look for free downloads on Dr. Anderson’s website at www.patricianananderson.com.