How to Address Childhood Stealing

by Freddie Silver, Demand Media
    Your youngster needs to learn it's wrong to take something without permission.

    Your youngster needs to learn it's wrong to take something without permission.

    When your little one comes home from preschool with a toy in his pocket that doesn't belong to him, it's time to focus on teaching him why stealing is wrong. It might be that he just forgot to put the toy back, but if you suspect the behavior was deliberate, you need to nip your little kleptomaniac in the bud before it becomes a bad habit.

    Step 1

    Put the incident into perspective and stay calm. Remember it's normal for very young children to take things that don't belong to them. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, it's only between the ages of 3 and 5 that children can begin to fully appreciate the concept that taking something that does not belong to them is wrong. So don't assume you have a little criminal in the making if your toddler swipes a cookie when your back is turned.

    Step 2

    Try to determine the reason behind the stealing. Examine changes in your youngster's life. The behavior could be the result of feelings of insecurity if there's recently been a new addition to the family or a divorce.

    Step 3

    Ask yourself if your little one might be feeling deprived. If money's been tight in the family and you don't have any extra for toys and treats, your child might be looking at her playmate's new things and feeling deprived. Look for ways to make her feel loved and special that won't cost you anything. Spending quality time with her, such as reading a favorite story in the middle of the afternoon, letting her help you bake cookies or making a craft project together from old magazines can be very rewarding for both of you. Most children value parental time and attention above material possessions.

    Step 4

    Check with your youngster's teachers if he goes to preschool or daycare or with the babysitter to see if they've seen any evidence of him taking things that don't belong to him. If his is stealing is occurring in the presence of his other caregivers, enlist their support in presenting a consistent approach to the problem.

    Step 5

    Tell your child that stealing is wrong. Ask how she would feel if her favorite storybook or toy was missing because someone took it. Get her to empathize with the owner of the stolen object and realize how sad he probably is.

    Step 6

    Put the incident into the greater context of society. Explain how we wouldn't want to be living in a world where everyone just took things they saw and wanted.

    Step 7

    Let your child know that you object strongly to his behavior, but do not suggest that you now consider him to be a thief or a bad person. Tell him that making mistakes is part of growing up, and that if he is sorry and will never do it again, you will forgive him.

    Step 8

    Help your youngster return the stolen object. For example, if she took something from your friend's house after a play date, have her with you when you return the object. If she took something from a store, take her with you when you return to the store to pay for it or give it back. Have her say how sorry she is that she took it.

    Step 9

    Make sure that your child does not benefit from the theft in any way. If he took candy and already ate most of it, let him know that you will replace the candy, but he will have to do some chores to pay you back. Consider not letting him have any candy for a few days as a reminder that his behavior was unacceptable.

    Step 10

    Teach your child the meaning of ownership. Renowned pediatrician Dr. Sears says that even from the age of 2, kiddies can begin learning the concepts of "yours" and "mine." Maximize every opportunity to help teach the concept. Hold up a pair of the baby's shoes and ask who they belong to. Do the same with your shoes and then those of your toddler. If she answers, "mine" to all the questions, gently correct her by pointing out, "No, these shoes belong to Daddy." Make a game of it. After she catches on to the idea of possession she can begin to understand the wrongness of taking something that doesn't belong to you.

    Step 11

    Check your own behavior. Remember you are the role model. If it's possible your little one heard you bragging to a friend about an error in your favor at the supermarket checkout, you might need to notch-up your honesty as well.


    • If your child's stealing becomes a frequent occurrence, consult your family doctor or pediatrician. A referral for some family counselling might be necessary.

    About the Author

    Freddie Silver started writing newsletters for the Toronto District School Board in 1997. Her areas of expertise include staff management and professional development. She holds a master's degree in psychology from the University of Toronto and is currently pursuing her PhD at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, focusing on emotions and professional relationships.

    Photo Credits

    • Jupiterimages/ Images