Written by: Cally Worden
Instilling a sense of right and wrong in our kids is all part of the Big Job that is parenting. Where stealing is concerned this life lesson typically starts from a very young age. We counsel our children on not swiping toys from playmates and stop them as they sneak their fingers into the biscuit tin for another snack. We talk about theft, security and money as we wander around the shops, and stop our little ones passing through the till without paying for the object of desire that’s in their hands. Our children learn much from the examples we set and with stealing, in most cases, the message is very clear – It’s Not What We Do. And yet many kids still go on to steal at some point.
Most Kids Will Steal
The majority of children will at some point steal something. It’s a way of testing authority, accepted norms and their own independence of choice. As parents, all we can hope is that the messages, both overt and subliminal, that we’ve given them as they grow are sufficient to have created a conscience that kicks in to prevent the stealing becoming a habit. Stealing and feeling guilty is one thing – but when your child feels elation and a sense of entitlement from it there is a potential problem in the making.
Kids aged 6-and-under usually haven’t yet developed the cognitive ability to truly understand and appreciate the difference between right and wrong. The self is still all consuming in really young children, and many are still learning to think outside of their own needs and wants to take those of others into consideration.
When kids this young try their hand at stealing they are really just seeking to acquire something they want. They don’t really get why it’s not allowed. So it’s important not to label the action as ‘Bad’ because the child will see that it is they who are bad, not the action, and this can do untold damage to their self-esteem. Instead, work on promoting the concept of sharing and asking for things they want before taking.
From the ages of around 6-9 a child learns about what stealing really means. So when an older child of, say, 9 steals something, they are doing so with a deliberate intent and usually a full understanding of the fact that it is wrong. This when it gets more serious, especially when the child is feeling okay about what they are doing. But even with children of this age it may simply be logic and their way of thinking that is at fault and it’s vital to explore that.
Let’s say a child of 10 sees his mates playing a video game that he would dearly love but can’t afford with his pocket money. He sees money in his Mum’s purse and rationalises that if it’s there she doesn’t need it, but he does. He convinces himself that she will never notice it’s gone, so he takes it. Inevitably he is discovered. With faulty thinking like this a discussion about how you can’t just take something because you want it is more appropriate and effective than any punishment. And it’s imperative that the item or money gained or stolen is returned – now is the time to show older children that they do not profit from theft.
Use of Your Credit Card
As children morph into teenagers their grasp of electronic money takes shape. A credit card can seem like a magic, consequence-free source of cash for your teen. The transactions are, to them, virtual and almost invisible. What could be more attractive? When the bill lands on your mat the game will be up.
At this age kids definitely do know better, and even rationalising their behaviour through warped thinking is not acceptable. Here, it’s important to discuss the wrongs of whatever thought process went into the use of your card and also to talk about consequences (the bill). Work with your teen to help them learn the need to make amends when they have behaved in this way. Perhaps doing chores around the house to pay back the money they ‘stole’ on your card. And definitely returning or selling whatever item they bought, or deleting whatever game or music they were enjoying as result of their actions. Making your child accountable for their actions at any age is the best way to help them learn.
When an older child starts stealing big or expensive items from your home and selling them on this indicates a much more serious underlying problem, possibly in the form of drugs or gambling. Look closely at your teen’s behaviour patterns, mood and personality. This is not something you can deal with alone- the stealing is no longer the primary problem, and you (and they) may need professional help.