How To Stop Your Child From Stealing In School

Young children sometimes cannot resist the temptation to pick up objects that catch their fancy. So, what will you do when your child brings home things from school that do not belong to her?

By Aruna Raghuram  • 9 min read

How To Stop Your Child From Stealing In School

Mona's daughter Ria is a preschooler. Like most children her age, Ria likes going to school. However, in the past few days, she has been bringing home things from school like a fancy pencil, a pack of crayons, a hair clip and a scented eraser. None of these items belong to Ria and this worries Mona. She wonders how Ria got these articles. Is her daughter stealing from classmates? Thinking about this possibility disturbs Mona. But, she is determined to make Ria quit this habit.

How did Mona change Ria's behaviour? Let's find out...

In a gentle tone, Mona asks Ria about the items she has brought home from school. Ria replies that these were gifts from friends. But, Mona probes further. She asks Ria: "Did you take the pencil, crayons, clip and eraser because you liked them and wanted them? If so, you could have asked me to buy them for you.” After remaining silent for a while, Ria admits that she had indeed taken the items from her friends without asking them.

To make Ria understand that this is not okay, Mona says: "Darling, how would you feel if your friend took away your favourite hair clip or eraser?"

"I wouldn't like it, Mama," answers Ria. 

"So, won't your friends also feel the same way, if you take what belongs to them?," points out Mona. Ria agrees. She realises that her friends too will be upset to lose their belongings. 

Mona makes Ria understand that, by taking her friends' items without their permission, she has hurt their feelings. This way, Mona has taught her daughter not to steal but also the golden rule of empathy — treat others as you would like to be treated.

No concept of boundaries

Toddlers and preschoolers do not understand the notion of boundaries. They do not realise that they shouldn't take things that do not belong to them. It is only between the ages of five and seven that a child begins to comprehend the concept of ownership and stealing.

Mona is well aware of this fact, but believes she can use this opportunity to teach Ria the difference between right and wrong. She tells Ria that her friends may be in trouble with their parents for having ‘lost’ their belongings. That’s why, she adds, Ria must give back those items and apologise for her mistake. After some hesitation, Ria agrees to do so. The next day, mother and daughter go to school where Ria returns the items. Mona also tells Ria's teacher what has happened. 

Moral perspective

Simply put, morality is the ability to understand the difference between right and wrong. Teaching this concept to children is one of the primary goals of parenting. Developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, who expanded the theory of Stages of Moral Understanding, says that young children base their morality on a punishment and obedience orientation. They behave in a morally upright manner because they fear authority and try to avoid punishment. In other words, young children follow rules because they don't want to get into trouble.

Preschoolers expect adults to take charge and set rules. However, the preschool years mark a child’s transition from being egocentric to empathetic. These are the formative ages of moral development when family values are internalised.

Why do very young children steal?

Usually, it is because they do not understand boundaries or the concept of morality. According to Ahmedabad-based clinical psychologist, Purnima Gupta, “A common reason why a child takes things that don’t belong to him is because his parents have not laid down personal and social boundaries clearly. This also happens when parents fulfil the child's every demand. The child displays an entitlement mentality and is not equipped to respect the needs and wishes of other children.”

At times, it may just be that a child fancies what her friend has and cannot stop herself from taking the object. A child this age has no impulse control. If the other child is showing off a coveted object, an element of jealousy also comes in. Jealousy plays a role, in another way too. For example, if the class teacher criticises one child and praises another, the former may steal something from the latter, in an attempt to get back. Also, Penelope Leach, author of the book Your Baby & Child, behavioural problems like lying and stealing are problems of maturity rather than morality. 

In certain cases, stealing may be a cry for help and attention. A child might feel unloved and neglected because of the birth of a sibling or, because her mother has gone back to work full-time. Then, the child might steal to get the parent’s attention. Also, when a child is emotionally deprived, a stolen object may be a substitute for love. And very occasionally, a preschooler may steal from a child who is bullying her or is mean to her.

What you should do

  • Don’t yell at your child, speak in a calm manner.
  • Don’t overreact or call her a thief or a liar. Don’t exaggerate the consequences of her actions by saying, 'The police will come and take you to jail for stealing'.
  • Help your child understand and experience guilt, instead of shaming him. Then your child regrets what he’s done and is ready to make amends. This prevents him from repeating the mistake. Shame, on the other hand, may cause your child to feel that he is unworthy and incapable of doing the right thing.
  • Help your child make amends by having her return the item to the rightful owner and apologise.
  • If your child steals again, withdraw a privilege for some time or deny him a treat you had promised. He must realise that stealing has consequences.
  • Talk to your child and try to find out why she is stealing. Spend quality time if you think a feeling of neglect could be the reason.
  • Frequent conversations about honesty can help prevent lying and stealing. Compliment and reinforce honest behaviour.
  • Teach your child to take care of his belongings from a young age. Set family rules in place about such thing as, always asking before borrowing something, returning borrowed items on time, so on.
  • Show your child unconditional love and support. If you make a mistake, make amends and say 'Sorry' to your child. This will teach her that it’s okay to make mistakes and apologise.

After getting back home that day, Mona is in an introspective mood. The incident has shaken her but also given her insights into her child's behaviour. She realises that she should not judge her child too harshly nor berate herself for poor parenting. After all, parenting is a learning process — for both parent and child. 

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