Stealing and How To Handle It

How do you deal with a ten-year-old who is stealing? I’m sure that my daughter has taken a few small items from classmates or friends, but she says she found the items, and if I push the issue, she says I don’t trust her. I’m positive that she’s lying because of her “body language.” We’ve had a few talks about stealing, and she knows that it’s wrong. On the one hand, I don’t want her to get away with it, but on the other hand, I can’t punish her for a crime which I can’t prove. Is this normal behaviour for this age group, and what can I do to make sure that it stops?

To understand why your child is stealing, ask yourself a couple of questions:

1. She may be stealing because she has no money. Do you give her an allowance? All children should have an allowance, from about age six until they are able to earn their own income from babysitting or a paper route. The allowance should not be a payment for chores. It should be given just because the child is a member of the family, and because you want her to learn the value of money, and learn how to manage it by buying the small things she needs and wants from her own income. Kids who have to ask when they want small things have no idea of the value of money. From $2 to $5 a week is a reasonable allowance for a ten-year-old, depending on your income.
2. She may be stealing because she has no clear sense of personal property. Do you allow her to have private possessions, which she does not have to share with others? Do you respect the privacy of her room, her clothes, and her possessions? In my experience, children who steal almost always have parents who don’t respect their possessions. They don’t know the meaning of private property because they haven’t had it themselves. The first step in helping your child respect others’ personal property is respecting hers.

Try to teach your child why stealing is wrong – because everyone has a right to have things that are specially theirs, which were given to them or which they bought with their own money. Back this teaching up with respecting her personal property, and giving her an allowance to buy things of her own, so that she can learn what things cost and why someone’s property is important to them.

Most children steal at some time in their lives. It is only abnormal if it continues or grows. Here’s how to handle it when it happens:

1. If you think she has stolen but can’t prove it, don’t make a big deal about it. Stealing isn’t the only way kids get things; they may sell or trade their toys. Whatever you do, don’t harass her until she “admits the truth” when you suspect she has stolen. This will only lead her to cover up, and add a lying problem to the stealing problem she already has. Your anxiety can lead you to lecture interminably. When you’ve taught her why stealing is wrong, stop talking. She knows it’s wrong; now it’s up to her.
2. If you have clear evidence that she has stolen something, state that you know she has stolen, and give her a consequence. Make the consequence as relevant as possible. If she has stolen from an individual, she should repay that individual from her own allowance, or earn money to cover the cost. If she has stolen from a store, she should tell the store manager and offer to pay them back in money or in work. Arrange this with the store management beforehand, so they will talk to her, insist on a consequence and not let her off the hook. A 12-year-old boy I worked with recently stopped a well-established stealing habit when a store employee told him that the cost of his thefts came out of the employees’ pockets.
3. If she has stolen before, and you think she has stolen now but can’t prove it, state that you think so, but since you can’t prove it, she will not be penalized. Don’t get into an argument about whether she is innocent or guilty. State that since she has stolen before, you don’t know whether or not to believe her when she says she didn’t do it. If she says “You don’t trust me!”, agree with her and say that you would like very much to be able to trust her. Explain that the problem with deception (stealing or lying) is that when a person deceives you once, from then on you don’t know whether you can believe them, even when they are telling the truth. Tell her that you will trust her again when she has had two months with no evidence of possible stealing or other deceptions. Then keep your word.

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