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Stealing and Children

Jumping the gun

Parents often find that their children turn up with things that don’t belong to them. A parent’s instinctive reaction is to give the child a good dressing down so as to nip his career as a petty thief in the bud. To decide that a child is stealing is a moral judgement that parents tend to be trigger-happy about. The fact is that parents cannot apply adult standards of discipline, self-control and morality to the actions of little children.

The age of innocence

Small children aged from one to three years occasionally do take things that don’t belong to them, but their intention is not to steal. They are too young to comprehend the concept of possession and that something could belong exclusively to someone. They still have to develop the concepts of ‘yours’ and ‘mine’ so when they see something they like, they feel it's all right to take it. So if a three-year-old has walked off with her playmate’s doll, there’s no need for her parents to overreact. They merely have to explain to her that the doll belongs to X and she would like to play with it so it would be best to give the doll back. They can also remind their child that she has plenty of dolls of her own to play with. 

Young children may also take things as part of their search for an identity. For instance, a child may take his father’s watch or his elder brother’s favourite video game just because it gives him a sense of belonging. It is not the object in itself that attracts him. He feels that by having something that belongs to his father or brother in some way makes him like them. He has not considered the right and wrong of taking these things. Guilt develops at a later stage. 

Older children and stealing

When children from the age of six to adolescence steal, they are definitely aware that what they are doing is not right. By this time, their conscience has developed, as similar behaviour in the past would have been met with parental censure and disapproval. Thus, when children in this age group take something that does not belong to them, they tend to be secretive and furtive. They will usually hide the object they have stolen and probably deny taking it when confronted. It is relatively easy to forgive a younger child for taking what does not belong to him on the grounds that he is unaware of what he is doing. However, parents confronted with children old enough to know the difference between right and wrong are dismayed by this ‘criminal’ behaviour. 

Often parents are perplexed because they find that the object that their child has ‘stolen’, is something that he already has. Therefore, the stealing is inexplicable. So where does the problem really lie? Loneliness could be one explanation. May be the child feels a lack of closeness in his relationship with his parents or has difficulty making friends. In that case, by stealing money he could attempt to buy the affection of his peers or attempt to satisfy his craving for attention and affection in this roundabout fashion. Stealing can also have its roots in feelings of fear, resentment, jealousy, etc. 

Sometimes an older child may steal an ashtray when he goes to a restaurant with his friends or swipe something from his parents. Such behaviour is usually the result of peer pressure and done in response to a dare. This behaviour may be misguided, but it rarely stems from maladjustment or represents the beginnings of criminality in the child. He is just doing it to be accepted by his peers. The way to deal with this is to reprimand the child firmly and to make sure that nothing that the parents have said or done in any way condones such behaviour. For instance, discussions about evading tax or paying household bills on company expense. 

Dealing with stealing

Parents should walk a fine line between discipline and humiliation. It doesn’t help to make a big issue and treat the child as if he has committed a major offence. This will only serve to frighten the child and put his back up. If a parent is absolutely sure that his child has stolen something, he must inform the child that he is aware that the object does not belong to the child. He should then question the child as to where he got the object from and then insist that he restore it to the rightful owner. The parent can help the child out by accompanying him to the shop or to the person to which the object belongs when the child goes to apologize, return the object or pay for it if he has taken it from a shop. It is not necessary to humiliate the child, but at the same time parents must make it clear that such behaviour is unacceptable and is not to be repeated. 

Parents also need to clarify the difference between stealing and borrowing. They must explain to their children that they need to ask the other person before taking any of their belongings. If the other person refuses to lend his possessions and the child still takes it, it is not borrowing, but stealing. The fact that the child asks first makes no difference because the other person did not give his consent. In this way, parents teach their children to respect other people’s possessions, to have the manners to ask before using or taking others’ things and to delay self-gratification. 

If the stealing is a recurrent behaviour, parents should consider the root cause of the problem. If they feel the child steals to attract attention or as a result of loneliness or a lack of affection, they need to rectify the situation. If necessary, parents can consult a child psychologist or counsellor if the stealing is chronic.

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