When your kids steal

Does this make your child a junior thief? Ownership is harder for kids to understand

Jack, who is four, arrives home on his bus from junior kindergarten. As his mom, Lorraine Waterman,* takes his hand for the big step at the bottom, she notices he has a cool watch on his wrist. “Where did that come from?” she asks.

“I found it at school,” says Jack.

When she presses Jack further, she figures out that the watch belongs to his classmate Malcolm — and in all likelihood, Jack didn’t have his friend’s permission to borrow it. But, says Nina Howe, a professor of early childhood and elementary education at Montreal’s Concordia University, Waterman can rest assured her little boy is not headed for a life of crime. It’s common and quite normal for a preschooler to see someone else’s possession as interesting and attractive, and nab it, says Howe, without any malicious intent to steal. “At this age, children don’t have a well-developed sense of another person’s point of view. They’re not going to be thinking about how the other person feels.”
Idea of property rights

Howe explains that while kids get the concept of mine as toddlers, the idea of property rights — that an object is yours and I’m not allowed to take it — is harder to grasp.

When you consider it, the business of who owns what is complex. Owner-ship means when an object is yours, I have to ask permission to use it (that’s borrowing). And people have things they’ll share and others they won’t.

Imagine Jack in his classroom — where his teacher stresses that everything in the classroom is to be shared, yet somehow Malcolm’s watch is exempted from that rule. How was he to know when he spotted the watch sitting in Malcolm’s cubby after lunch that he wasn’t supposed to take it?

It’s almost a parental rite of passage that at some point your child will nick something off a store shelf. Maura, three, arrives back at the car with her dad, Ben Cameron,* and asks, “Can I try on my new shoes now?” What shoes?

Guilt trip

How should parents handle these situations? Be matter-of-fact, advises Howe: “Oh dear, you made a mistake and Malcolm needs his watch back.” Preschoolers needn’t be made to feel guilty; they need rules to help them gapple with the complexities of property rights, rather than a stern lecture about why stealing is wrong. Explain that you must always ask before taking something that doesn’t belong to you. Then the item should be returned immediately to the rightful owner, with an explanation.

What about the five-finger discount? Take your child back to the store right away, tell the cashier what happened, and pay for the item, advises Howe. “Explain that when we are in a store, we have to pay for things.”

*Names changed by request.