What to do when your kid is caught stealing

Have a young pickpocket on your hands? Here's how to deal when your little one has a bad case of sticky fingers.

Hands stealing a candy jar
Photo: Getty Images

Show of hands, parents, those of you who remember nicking a packet of pretzels from a friend’s lunch box or a He-Man figure from the toy store. Or surely you recall standing at the convenience store, eyes darting left and right as you stuffed your pockets with clammy fistfuls of Toostie Rolls, or, in my case, an eraser in the shape of a Coke bottle.

It was the sweet cola scent that made me do it! Had my brother not found it stashed away in the drawer of my little wooden desk and told on me, my mom would never have known.

It’s not uncommon—particularly between the ages of five and eight, when testing limits is kids’ raison d’être—for little ones to take something that doesn’t belong to them, says Julie Freedman Smith of Parenting Power, a Calgary-based coaching team. “Unlike toddlers, this age group knows that it’s wrong to steal,” she says, “but they’re wondering, ‘just how wrong is it?’”

Six-year-old Max was testing the waters when he snuck a pack of gum into his pocket at the checkout aisle of a Hamilton big-box store.

When his mom, Magda Jaroszynski, realized, they were already well on their way home. She was furious. “All he could get out was: ‘I’m sowwy.’ He’s not allowed to have gum, so that’s why he took it.”

little boy covering his eyes
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Freedman Smith says it may be tempting for children to play adult and help themselves to whatever their little hearts desire—“I think I’ll have that, oh, and that, too!”—but by this age, kids are probably aware that stealing isn’t the way to get their hands on the goods, so a parent’s response is critical.

“If we ignore the behaviour, then we’re encouraging them to continue to push that boundary,” says Freedman Smith. “Whereas if we’re very clear that this isn’t what we do, then parents have an opportunity to say ‘Good, this will be a one-time thing, and it doesn’t need to happen again.’”

Jaroszynski chose to respond with an age-old scare tactic: “I told him that if he ever did it again, the police would come.”

While this threat has been used by parents for generations, Freedman Smith says there are better ways to discourage sticky-fingered sprogs.

“What’s the value we are trying to teach here? It’s honesty,” she says. “And if we’re practising dishonesty to teach honesty, then we’re breaking the value just as much as our kids are.”

Instead, she suggests first talking to your child about empathy—“You really wouldn’t like it if Thomas took your trucks home without asking”—and then, if at all possible, following up with a visit back to the shop or friend’s house to return the stolen item and apologize. Even if there’s little left of the loot other than a crumpled candy wrapper, she says your kid still needs to take responsibility for his actions.

“The point is not the cost of the item, it’s the cost of the lesson,” she says. “If a child can look that store owner in the eye, then the child is likely not going to do it again. If we choose not to go back to return the item, our words are saying we don’t steal things, but our actions are saying it’s fine.”

My own shameful faceoff with the shopkeeper over that Coca-Cola eraser is still quite vivid for me. I couldn’t have been more than five years old, but he certainly didn’t let me off easily, with his mean, pointy face and fierce words.

Needless to say, I don’t recall stealing again.

Read more:
Kids’ behaviour: 10 things to forgive them for (and why)
Joking about stealing my baby isn’t funny

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