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Children steal for a number of different reasons. Why do they do it and what can parents do to stop it? All the answers, below:

Little children with wondering hands love to touch and experience things firsthand. However, these little hands like more than just to touch, they want to hold and keep forever. The presence of a little chocolate near the counter is just too much to bear. “There are so many, available in a number of different colours, eating just one won’t hurt anyone”. Young children are self centred, most of them are yet to learn about the importance of empathy and how their actions affect and hurt others.

Most parents are devastated to learn that their child has stolen something. They feel embarrassed and ashamed. However, depending on your child’s age, initially there is very little you can do to prevent this act from happening. This is due to the fact that your child doesn’t know that bringing a teddy bear home that belongs to a friend at playschool, is wrong. Young children are still learning about themselves and they believe that what they want, they must get. They do not understand the concepts of ownership, borrowing and private property.

Some parents struggle to come to terms with their precious little angel stealing from shops, their handbags and other children. “How could this be? Your morals are impeccable and now your child is a thief”. If you are feeling like this, read on to learn about possible reasons for your child’s unlawful behaviour as well as possible solutions to this problem.

Dealing with the Stealing
First things first, you should never label your child a thief, some form of punishment is crucial in this situation, but never call your child a thief, especially if it is their first time offence. As difficult as it might be to stay calm when you find the stolen merchandise, it is imperative that you ask your child where it came from and why they stole it. Some form of punishment is needed in the event of stealing, no matter what age your child is.
Possible techniques for reprimanding and teaching that such behaviour is wrong, are as follows:

  1. Taking your child back to the shop or the owner of the stolen property to apologise and perhaps pay for any damages or use of the stolen item. Get your child to say sorry and promise that it will not happen again.
  2. Talk to your child, if your child is young and this is the first offence, use this opportunity to teach your child about honesty, respect for others and their belongings as well as how others may hurt by them stealing or taking what doesn’t belong to them.
  3. Also, use this time to educate your child about what is right and what is wrong. Be firm and informative, before you know it, your child will have the morals you desire, just give it a little time. Learning is a process.
  4. Help your child to internalise the situation. Say things like “How would you feel if your friend took your favourite bear home without permission and didn’t give him back?”
  5. Lead by example. If your child sees you snacking excessively on the grapes in the fruit and vegetable aisle, how can you expect your child not to try out the brightly coloured sweets? Explain to your child that you can’t just take things without paying for them or asking permission.
  6. Teach your child about the importance of paying for goods. This can be done by letting your child pay for sweets and cold drink, and then explaining to them that they need to bring the leftover change back to you. This way he/she will learn the process of choosing something in the shop, paying for it and then only leaving with the goods. This lesson can further be introduced by giving your child their own pocket money to spend and enjoy.
  7. Explain to your child that stealing can get them in big trouble, and that the people at the shop might be so angry that they might call a policeman. As harsh as this may seem, scaring your child away from such behaviour will ensure that they know the consequences for stealing and other deviant behaviour.
  8. If your child has stolen, even if for the 1st time, your child needs to suffer some kind of consequence, in order to learn that this behaviour is wrong. Some options include going back to the shop/friend to apologise, paying back the goods using their own pocket money, doing more chores around the house to pay back the stolen items or taking away privileges like watching TV or ‘sweetie’ time. The younger your child is the less severe the punishment should be. The golden rule is: there should ALWAYS be a negative consequence for stealing.
  9. Keep discussions short and to the point, share your disappointment, but don’t lecture or humiliate your child for their behaviour. Stay calm.
  10. Teach your child to ask to use/play with something, before just taking it. This way he/she will be granted permission to play with an object.
  11. Parents need to find out the possible reasons for this kind of behaviour.

Reasons for Stealing
Before you can deal with your child stealing, you need to consider why it has happened. You also need to take into account the age of your child, whether it is the first time your child has stolen and possible reasons behind these actions.
Children don’t understand that certain things don’t belong to them and that they need permission before playing or using other’s belongings. They don’t understand that some things cost money and need to be paid for. If your child has stolen a sweet or toy, it might be because your child is still learning how to use self control. Small children also have poor impulse control, so they might steal a chocolate because they want it or they are hungry. In these incidences, punishment shouldn’t be too severe as small children don’t know that they are doing anything wrong. Parents need to teach their children the important life lessons, about the difference between right and wrong.
It is believed that children older than 6, should know that stealing is wrong. If they are still stealing at this age, parents will need to investigate reasons behind why this is still happening. Here are some possible explanations:

  • Your child might have been the victim of peer pressure, a dare or he/she might have stolen in an attempt to fit in
  • Their pocket money doesn’t cover the costs of the new toy they want
  • Your child might be stealing to get some attention
  • They want to see if they can get away with it and they are after the thrill that comes with stealing
  • They may be feeling neglected and stealing offers little comfort and gratification
  • They steal as a cry out for help
  • They are rebelling against authorities
  • They feel left out and want the things other kids have
  • Stealing can be a form of revenge

What’s Mine Isn’t Yours
As distressing and disappointing as learning that your child has stolen can be, it is all a part of learning what is considered right and wrong. Teach your child the importance of asking permission and paying for the things they want. Always praise your child for their honesty. If the situation is deeper than knowing the difference between right and wrong, spend some time with your child and find out possible reasons for their behaviour. If the problem persists, you might need to seek professional help. Talk to a councillor for advice on dealing with this problem.

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