When Your Child Steals – Four Tips to Turn Things Around

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“Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” – Mark Twain

Week 1: Cure for the gimme’s. My five-year-old son, Alessio, is crazy for Legos. Especially the Starship Trooper mega Legos, which he recently saw at the Chabot Space Museum. There is nothing wrong with collecting things, especially brainy toys that train the mind. But still, I deliberately have been taking my kids to the museum instead of the mall on Saturdays.

As is the case with many children, my kids have the gimme’s. I can’t take a trip to the store without a basket full of wishes, which we put back on the shelves. So I’m trying to be a good mom. And here we are at the museum, a $40 toy now on Alessio’s new wish list.

Everything is a learning opportunity. We go home and set up a strategy. A piggy bank, extra chores to earn some cash. Alessio will learn about patience, the value of money, and personal responsibility. I am so excited. Good job, Mommy! I think to myself. You’ve outsmarted the gimme’s.

Week 2: Are we there yet? “Mommy, do I have enough yet for the Starship Troopers?”

“Not yet.”

“How much do I have?” We open the piggy bank and count his savings.

“$8.00.”

“Is that enough?”

“We need $32.00 more. Four times more than we have.”

He doesn’t understand the details, only that it’s a long way to go. Alessio bows his head, leaves the room a little discouraged and mumbles, “I’ll be right back.” He comes running back to the room five minutes later.

“Mommy I found more money, we can buy it now!”

“Where did you get this?”

“I found this dollar in my piggy bank.”

It was a $50 bill he had “found”. Way more than anything he had ever earned. He had clearly stolen it from his father’s wallet. My good intentions have created a little thief. Now I have to explain what stealing is. While I’m at it, it wouldn’t hurt to teach him the difference between a $1 bill and a $50—and to find a good hiding place for my purse.

Wanting things that aren’t yours, or wanting to get something without doing the work are complex moral lessons that even adults have a hard time with. The good news: Alessio was a terrible thief and an even worse liar. It wasn’t too late. So we have the conversation: “Stealing is taking something that doesn’t belong to you.”

Kids steal for a variety of reasons. Almost everybody has done it at some time or another. A child may want something he can’t afford, or is too young to understand what stealing is. Some children steal if they are upset or going through emotional difficulties. Find out the why of your child’s actions and you’ll know better how to respond as a parent.

Life takes practice. Building good habits and recognizing bad ones (and how to change them) are part of growing up. Here are a few basics to keep in mind.

Four Tips to Turn Things Around 

  • Kids need limits. When it comes to lying, cheating or stealing, it is especially important to let them know these are serious matters. Mindful discipline works best. Depending upon the age, these could include extra chores, less TV or phone time, or staying home instead of going to the big game. Be clear about consequences. Follow through on your promises, and expect your children to do the same. Always work from a place of compassionate understanding, emphasizing personal responsibility for one’s actions.
  • Make amends. If your child has stolen something, make sure she returns it with an apology. If the stolen goods were eaten, lost, or destroyed, the item’s value should be returned out of your child’s money – not yours. If she has to borrow money to replace the item, work out a list of extra chores until the money is paid back. No negotiating.
  • Talk about money with your kids. Clearly they are interested in the subject or they wouldn’t be stealing. Use the opportunity for healthy hands-on experience. Children as early as 3 can start learning about money. Warren Buffet’s Secret Millionaire’s Club has excellent advice for children of all ages about handling money responsibly.
  • Link rewards with effort. Create reasonable expectations and incentives for making good decisions. Be consistent. If your child knows what to expect, both for positive behavior or negative behavior, he will be more likely to make better decisions on his own. Praise is also a powerful reward that builds your children’s confidence in their own abilities to contribute to the world. One of the surest ways to future success!

For more on teaching your children about making good decisions in life, check out my other blogs Truthiness and Other Dilemmas and How do You Teach Self-Control to Your Children?

Ciao,

Princess Ivana

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