- Children may steal to take advantage of simple opportunities, to indulge in temptation, or as an urgent cry for help.
- Keep the focus on your connection with your child, not on the theft, and you'll be in the best place to prevent further stealing.
- Help your child see honesty and integrity as better choices. Trust, openness, and respect feel a lot better than more money or new things.
Why do children steal?
Before the age of three, children don’t understand concepts of exclusive ownership. They know what they want and take it if they can. However, as children mature, they become capable of knowing the difference between “mine” and “not mine.”
If you find your child has stolen something—whether from a family member, a schoolmate, or a store, consider the many possible reasons children steal:
- Ignorance. Does your child realize that what they’ve done is wrong?
- Temptation. Did your child steal something because it was right there and tempting?
- Attention. Does your child’s theft reflect a need for attention? Is the stolen object a substitute for love or affection? Is it perhaps a cry for help?
- Revenge or anger. Is your child stealing in retaliation for something? Are they trying to make things equal because someone else gets more affection or gifts than they do?
- Thrills. Did your child steal for excitement?
- Limit-testing. Is your child seeing if they’ll get caught, and what will happen if they do?
- Generosity. Did your child steal to give a present to family or friends?
- Independence. Did your child steal to demonstrate their freedom and autonomy?
- Peer pressure. Did your child steal in order to own something considered cool?
- Showing off. Did your child steal for bragging rights?
- Lack of money. Does your child believe they couldn’t acquire the stolen item any other way?
- Entitlement. Does your child feel they deserve to have whatever they want?
In most cases, there’ll be more than one reason your child has stolen. They may not understand those reasons, much less be able to tell you why they did it.
How to Respond
With very young children, help them understand that stealing is wrong–that when you take something without asking or paying for it, it hurts someone else. Talk about how you and they can make things right for the person or store they took something from.
If your child is school-age, consider these recommendations:
- Focus on connection. As with all problem behaviors, keep your focus on your connection with your child. Ensure they feel your love and acceptance, no matter what. Let them know that’s why you’re taking their stealing seriously. It’s because you love them and see them as a valuable member of the family that you want to help them make different choices.
- Avoid lecturing and punishment. Don’t take a harsh tone, call your child a thief or a bad person, or predict future bad behavior. Negative talk and punishment won’t solve the problem and will probably make it worse.
- Teach your child what’s wrong with stealing. Tell your child that stealing is not acceptable in your family and your community because you value trust and reliability. Help your child understand, kindly but firmly, that theft has both a victim and a perpetrator and that victims are usually angry about it. The victim will also feel betrayed if they’re a family member or friend because stealing is a violation of trust. The consequences vary, but at the very least, a thief loses the trust of others.
- Repair the damage. Talk with your child about how they can make it right. Make sure they don’t benefit in any way from the theft. If your child has taken something from a family member or a friend, discuss ways of paying the money back or replacing the stolen items. If they’ve taken something from a store, consider going with them back to the store and discussing the situation with the manager. (Depending on the circumstances, this may or may not be a good idea.)
- Assess together the reasons for the theft. Go through the list of 12 possible reasons for stealing listed above. Ask your child to think like a detective. They’re helping you figure out the problem so you can solve it together. Talk with them gently but firmly about why they stole, perhaps starting with the reasons you think are most likely.
- Show that honesty and integrity are choices. Help them see that it’s up to them to choose honesty and integrity (or dishonesty and sneakiness). Talk about how feeling good about yourself, and living in a caring, trusting family, are a lot more valuable than anything you might ever steal.
- Be a role model for honesty and integrity. Don’t steal from your employer or anyone else, whether pens or money. If you’re given too much change at the store, return the extra money, and discuss it with your child. When you tell your child you’ll do something, do it.
- Find other models of honesty and integrity. Look for books, videos, and biographies that illustrate the benefits of honesty, integrity, trust, and respect. Point out instances of honesty that you encounter in daily life.
- Catch your child being honest. Notice honest actions and praise your child for them. For example, “Thank you for telling me you took that extra cookie. I’m not happy you did it, but I’m very happy you told me about it.”
- Move on. Once you’ve discussed your child’s theft with them, and repaired any damage, don’t bring it up again. Let the child move on with a clean slate. You don’t want them to feel like a criminal.
- Help your child find better ways to get what they want. We are living in a consumeristic society, where shops often place tempting goods at kids’ eye level. Help your child recognize temptation and acquire the confidence that they can have the things they want if they work and save for them. Maybe you can give your child an allowance and help them plan for larger purchases. Maybe you can help them find age-appropriate jobs that will earn money and self-respect.
- Get help if you need it. If the stealing continues or you think it may be a sign of more complex or serious problems, look for professional help.