How to Raise a Happy, Cooperative Child

Parenting Strategies for All Ages

When Your Child Has a Case of Sticky Fingers

Parents become worried when their kids take things that don't belong to them.

Has something like this ever happened to you? Your child returns from a play date, and when you open his backpack, you discover his friend's dinosaur figure inside. It's not uncommon for parents to walk outside the grocery store and find that their child has filled his pockets with some candies that were on display. Parents become very worried when their children take something that does not belong to them. As a parenting consultant, they will often ask me in a state of panic, “Is my child going to be a thief?”

I assure parents that this behavior is in the realm of normal child development. Young children have not developed impulse control, as yet. So, when they see something they like, they go for it. Over time, as you set limits with your child and explain to her how to behave appropriately, this behavior will disappear. Here are some tips on how to help your child control her sticky fingers.

Set clear limits. For example, if he takes a bag of potato chips off the shelf, tell him, “You cannot take anything by yourself. If you want something, you must ask me if you can have it.” If you find that he has taken a toy home from a play date, remind him that he must always ask if he can borrow other people's possessions.

Explain the rule using examples that she can understand. For instance, you can explain that in your house everything belongs to the family. No one can take anything from your house unless they ask you and you agree to give it to them.

Help your child to build empathy. Children need to develop more empathy to learn about respecting other people's property. You can help this development along by using examples that your child can relate to. If he takes someone's ball at the park and does not wish to return it, you can say,” Remember when the little boy took your shovel in the sandbox? You were very sad and you were crying. That is how this little boy feels. You need to give it back to him.”

Avoid shaming your child if she breaks the rule. Your young child may have heard the rule many times, but her cognitive ability to grasp a rule works faster than her emotional ability to act on it. If you punish your child or berate her, she will feel she is a bad child. The focus should remain on helping her to make positive choices.

If you are certain your child has taken his sister's diary, avoid questioning him. He will naturally try to deny it because he knows you will be angry. It is better to state clearly what has happened, for instance, “I can see that you took your sister's diary. You need to give it back. “

Help her to understand her motivation. You might say for example, “I know you really liked the set of markers in the store. But you cannot take them without asking. “

Keep your small child occupied when he is sitting in a shopping cart. Give him a bag of pretzels to hold so he will be less interested in taking things off the shelf.

Involve your child in repairing situations. If she has taken something from a store, go back and return it with her. If she's willing she can say, “I’m sorry.” If she's too ashamed, model the behavior by apologizing for her.

Older children often go through a phase of taking change from their parents' pockets or from the table. The underlying reason is similar. They want to buy something they want very badly and they are not sure you will agree to get it for them. If this happens, confront the issue, and have your child pay you back from his allowance. If an older child repeatedly takes things, it requires more investigation. It can be a symptom that the child is feeling needy or looking for attention. In this case, a discussion with a child expert can help you to determine the cause and how to help your child.

 

Meri Wallace, LCSW, is a parenting expert and child and family therapist.

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