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What to do when you child steals… (or lies or cheats)

Two year olds… and their philosophy of what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is also mine. Right? That’s the law of a toddler. But then our kids start to grow up and they start to become more aware of the concept of ownership and how everything is not necessarily theirs. But impulse control takes longer to develop than that self awareness of ownership.

Ava has, on occasion, come home from a play date with a toy car stuffed in her pocket, or a loom band bracelet in her bag. When I’ve quizzed her on it, her standard response has been that friend X gave it to her and I accepted that. Or that she’d simply forgotten she had the toy car in her pocket…. because she’s my child and I’ll always believe the best of her. Till I received a phone call from her school teacher on Friday, informing me that she’d taken tuck money that didn’t belong to her, out of her desk mates lunch box, left open on his desk, while he was out of the classroom.

To say I was mortified is an understatement. I nearly died from embarrassment you guys. But after chatting with Ava’s teacher and then my friend, Jenny over at Your Parenting, I learned that lying, cheating and stealing is actually pretty normal behavior at this age. While Ava is old enough to grasp the basic concept’s of ownership, she doesn’t have the maturity or impulse controls in place just yet and this is a learned behavior and one which we will need to teacher her… starting now!

Of course, my initial reaction was to go postal the second I laid eyes on her, but I had to reign myself in, I needed to know that Walter and I were treating this as a learning experience for Ava, one where honesty was rewarded. I found this statement particularly pertinent:

Stealing is perfectly normal for children this age, says family and child therapist Meri Wallace, director of the Heights Center for Adult and Child Development, in Brooklyn. “Five- and 6-year-olds are in the process of developing a conscience, but it can still be very hard for them to control their impulses when they see something they want,” she says. “Although they know the rules intellectually, they haven’t internalized them yet.”

Quote from Dealing with Stealing – Parents.com

Most interestingly from the research I did, is that this is normal, age appropriate behavior and an opportunity for us to teach Ava, although I really really really just wanted to get angry and yell at her. But I picked up some great tips from my research on the best ways to deal with the situation.

The other thing that was interesting for me, was reading that this kind of behavior is often more noticeable when a child is the oldest in the family as they haven’t had older siblings to start teaching them from a far younger age, the concept of ownership.

Be matter of fact –

“It’s not right that you took xyz from Friend X, you need to give it back and apologize.”

Avoid name calling/labelling –

“You’re a thief!”

Because this is a normal part of childhood development, name calling can do way more damage than good.

Avoid comparisons – 

“Your brother/sister/friend would NEVER do that!”

Stay neutral – 

If you find something in your child’s backpack that you suspect he might have stolen, make a neutral comment, such as “Mmm, I wonder where this came from.” If he says he doesn’t know, give him a second chance to confess (“I know you didn’t have it when you left for school”). However, if you’re certain that your child has stolen something, don’t ask him — he’ll probably lie to save face. Simply acknowledge it (“I see you took the Game Boy”), and let him know that you realize how he feels (“It’s okay to want it and wish it were yours, but it’s not okay to take it”), Wallace suggests. Then find a way to repair the situation — go back to the store or his friend’s house to return the stolen item. If your child is too shy, you can apologize for him (“My son took this pack of gum, but he knows now that it was wrong”).

Quote from Dealing with Stealing – Parents.com

Praise honesty –

This is a big deal. When we approached Ava to ask her what had happened, I would have been more upset had she lied. And this goes for all age appropriate lying among kids her age. I know this is an issue with many of my friends parenting kids the same age. The lying. We’re trying to teach Ava that honesty is the best policy.

Have realistic expectations –

This isn’t an issue that will be resolved after one discussion, it’s something that will need to be focused on until the behavior is corrected and her impulse control improves.

I read an interesting statistic during my research into this topic that stated that stealing of this nature is normal and common among children aged 5 – 6 and that lying would start at around the same age. But that while the stealing would, most likely, unless there were additional underlying issues, just be a phase and fizzle out, lying tends to escalate in children up till the age of 10 when they really start understanding the consequences of lying and the merits of honesty.

Here are a few other great resources to read if you’re struggling with lying/cheating/stealing with your young child.

Ask Dr Sears – 8 Ways to Prevent & Discipline Stealing

Real Simple – Why do children lie, cheat & steal.

Parent.com – Lying & stealing & what you can do to stop it.

Parent.com – Dealing with stealing.

Your Parenting – What do you value?

When I told my mom about this, she burst out laughing! She actually laughed you guys!  I phoned my mommy in my hour of need and she laughed at me. Turns out my brother had a problem with sticky fingers when he was Ava’s age too and just about everyone I spoke to admitted that they had at least one child who had been through this or something similar. So there’s that!

 

 

 

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23 Comments

  • Reply paddatjiesema

    This is such a relief to read that it’s a normal stage. My oldest went through it when she just turned 6. She would come home every day with other kids toys, and always tell me the other person gave it to her. I would always put it back in her bag and sent it to school just for in case. Then one day she came home hysterical. She was caught stealing by some of the other kids in the class. They told her the police was going to fetch her, take her to prison and she’s never going to see us again. That was the end of it until this weekend. She is now 7 and a half. But this time she knew she was wrong, and immediately told me about it. I’m going to read all of links to see how to deal with it.

    August 3, 2015 at 9:18 am
    • Reply Sharon

      Thank you so much for sharing! It always helps to know that we’re not alone in these situations.

      August 3, 2015 at 10:03 am
  • Reply Robyn

    Yup.. been there, done that.. Liam often comes home with stuff that doesn’t belong to him! These tips are great, normally I just fly off the handle with him.. sighhh. thanks!

    August 3, 2015 at 9:46 am
    • Reply Sharon

      My initial reaction was that I was going to go postal on her when I saw her, but then after chatting to Jenny, I realized that would be the worst possible reaction and so I read up like crazy on Friday before I saw her (and cried) before starting the conversation.

      August 3, 2015 at 10:03 am
  • Reply Cindy

    Flip, I’ve never thought to really check with them if it really was given or if they took it. Great post!

    August 3, 2015 at 11:38 am
  • Reply Jenny

    Good for you for remaining calm. I didn’t when Dyl was caught out in a lie (lying is my absolute worst thing – even worse than stealing for me!) and now every time he fudges or I think he’s not telling the truth he tells me I think he’s a liar. It’s a tough one! Hopefully this one-off will not re-occur. Can you share with us how the school handled it?

    August 3, 2015 at 2:29 pm
    • Reply Sharon

      When she owned up to it, she was called aside and had the whole lecture on how taking things that don’t belong to you is not acceptable behaviour, her tuck money was then removed and she was not allowed to participate in tuck on Friday, which is a privilege that has to be earned during the course of the week. I’m happy with the way her teacher handled it because she also called me to tell me about it and to reassure me that it is normal behaviour as this age and that I shouldn’t freak out, but she wanted to keep me in the loop. My mom also pointed out a valid point after the fact, Ava is a prankster and she could have taken the money as a prank and then when it went horribly wrong she didn’t know how to handle it. She’s famous for doing that, hiding things and thinking it’s a joke.

      August 3, 2015 at 2:40 pm
      • Reply Jenny

        True! Because it sounds so extreme that may be a better explanation. Be proud she owned up to it – that takes huge guts. I hope she doesn’t face any backlash from her peers. xxx

        August 3, 2015 at 2:54 pm
  • Reply Heather

    I remember stealing chocolates from the shop and the first time it wasn’t a big deal, the second time I could see my mom was really angry so I never did it again!

    August 3, 2015 at 9:42 pm
  • Reply Karen at MomAgain@40

    I had a situation yesterday where a friend of my daughter stole her brand new mouth guard. She was running around with it in her mouth. I went and bought a new one, because it is ruined in any case. Should I give the mother a call? (I would like a call if my daughter steals)

    August 5, 2015 at 8:43 am
    • Reply Sharon

      I would let her know too because I’d also want to know if it/when it was my child.

      August 5, 2015 at 8:47 am
  • Reply Does our traditional school system make or break out children?

    […] was totally ok with them punishing her by not allowing her to participate in tuck, after the stealing incident, but this? No, this for me is not ok! And it’s not like we just didn’t bother and just […]

    August 17, 2015 at 9:01 am
  • Reply August Roudup and Linky - South African Mom Blogs

    […] has an informative post on What to do when your child steals or lies or cheats. She also has some great resources on the issue she has […]

    October 23, 2015 at 5:06 pm
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