Why Kids Steal.. and What To Do About It
It happens to a lot of parents. One day, you discover that something is missing from your desk or purse. You suspect your child.
Or… 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.
Why do otherwise good kids take things that don’t belong to them? And what should you do when you find out?
Small children 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. 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.
Young kids also may take things simply because their ability to think before they act is not fully developed. They know they shouldn’t have taken what they did, but they just didn’t think about it at the time.
None of this is much cause for concern because the stealing is not really intentional. Your reaction should make clear that stealing is not tolerated and that whatever was taken has to be put back. Of greater concern is stealing that is deliberate.
Kids steal intentionally for one of several reasons. Children without much self-esteem can equate having things with being a worthy person. So kids might steal a cool-looking backpack or a team logo jersey in order to be accepted by a group of friends that has those things or simply to satisfy their own egos with trendy stuff. He might take something that belongs to a friend because he really wants it and can’t figure out how to get something similar any other way.
Kids sometimes steal for revenge, to get back at a kid or a store-owner they think treated them unfairly. Kids can steal just because they feel life is stacked against them and stealing is a way to level the playing field. Either way, they steal out of a desire for justice, even though they commit an injustice to get there. Remember that kids’ ability to see different points of view and to imagine the consequences of their actions (for themselves and for their victims) do not fully develop until late in adolescence.
Finally, older kids sometimes steal on a dare or just to see if they can get away with it. They may just be tempted and think that pocketing items is no big deal. But if shoplifting or even burglary has become a form of entertainment for your child or for your child and his friends then it’s time to sit up and pay attention. It’s hard to tell which is worse: the idea that eventually your child will be caught and you’ll get to experience the juvenile justice system first-hand or the possibility that your child will not be caught and will be on her way to a life of petty crime.
Intentional stealing should be dealt with swiftly. This is not the time to blame other kids or the neighborhood or television. This is not the time to look the other way and just hope this is just a phase. Kids who steal intentionally, when they know what they’re doing and they’re old enough to have developed some self-control, need support to turn things around.
Figure out why your child steals. Consider your own childhood and adolescence – were you ever tempted? Did you ever take something that didn’t belong to you? What do you remember about your motives and about the outcome?
If you discover or suspect your kid is stealing, use this event to reinforce your family’s values and to set your child again on the right path. But also use this event to help your child to deal with the needs and pressures that she expresses by stealing. This is just a stumble on the way to becoming a responsible adult. Support your child in regaining her footing.
© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.