My child is stealing: How do I stop it?

Worried about your child's habit of stealing? It is certainly an inappropriate behaviour. However, it can be addressed. Read on to find out how.

By Dr Priscilla J S Selvaraj

My child is stealing: How do I stop it?

‘I need to keep an eye on my child whenever we visit a friend or relative’s house; otherwise, he may pick up something and slip it into his pocket. It’s so embarrassing. No matter how much I advise him, he continues to do this.’

‘I can’t leave my wallet lying around on the couch or table; my son sometimes takes money from it. Wonder what I can do about it?’

‘My daughter takes money from her brother’s piggy bank; I’m so upset.’

‘My little one often brings home the toys belonging to her play-mate who lives next-door.’

Are you one of those parents who utters statements such as the above in total despair? Are you at a loss as to how to deal with your child who has the habit of stealing? Let’s see how you can handle this. First of all, try to analyse and understand why your child is stealing. The following could be some of the reasons.

(If your child is a preschooler) Your little one may –

  • not even know that taking someone else’s belongings is wrong
  • be doing it playfully without understanding the repercussions
  • have observed an elder in the family stealing on some occasions and may be modelling his behaviour on that 

(If your child is a primary-schooler or preteen) Your child may -

  • require money to spend on some essentials such as materials for projects or hobby kits which she may be hesitant to request you for (probably, your having rejected her earlier requests is forcing her do this)
  • want more pocket money than what you give every month (her expenses probably exceed her monthly allowance)
  • not be able to control the urge to flick things; this may be a serious condition called ‘kleptomania’

(If your child is a teen) In addition to the above three reasons, your teen may -

  • have become addicted to something - smoking, alcohol or drugs
  • want to show off to his friends or try to win their favour by giving them treats or gifts regularly

Once you understand the underlying reason it would be easier to deal with the problem. Here’s how to go about it.

(For parents of children of all age groups)

Practise honesty: This is the most important step. As a parent, ensure that you practise honesty in all aspects of your life – be it personal or professional. The values that you stand for and uphold are the ones that will be reflected in your child. Children, after all, observe and imitate their parents the most. Also, if your child is taught to practise honesty, all other values will follow. Even when there are family discussions on day-to-day happenings or television news and shows, ensure that you send the right message across to your child regarding truth and integrity. You should also integrate this value in everyday routine and events. Underlining the importance of honesty can be done through a bedtime story, by narrating an anecdote or in real life when you return the extra change given to you at the cash counter. Your child will imbibe all that she learns incidentally.

(For parents of preschoolers and primary-schoolers)

Nip it in the bud: The very first time your child steals, correct her. If you ignore the act, it would become a habit. Then, it would be difficult for you to get her out of it. Firstly, sit and have a chat with her explaining that it is wrong to steal. After that, maintain a constant watch on her and if she attempts to steal something, stop her. Reinforce the fact that stealing is wrong.

Explain the concept of possession: Young children may find it difficult to understand the concept of ownership. That’s the reason it is a common sight to see children running away with something taken from the shelf in a department store. Make your child realise that she cannot lay claim to all that she sees. She has rights only over her possessions, and that it is wrong to take other people’s belongings without their permission.

Explain the consequences: For older children, elaborate on what stealing can lead to – angering the owner, destroying the relationship with the person, and creating a bad impression about the child. Also, make your child understand that stealing can lead to other negative qualities such as lying. Let him understand that it is a vicious cycle with one act leading to another.

Remove temptations: In the initial stages, the moment you realise your child has got into the habit of stealing, remove all temptations from her environment. Do not keep money, valuables or anything else that she may be interested in lying around. Often, the absence of temptation is the best approach to correcting wrong behaviour.

(For parents of preteens and teens)

Address the trigger: Once you understand why your child steals, address the cause. If he requires more pocket money and if he is justified in asking for it, grant it to him. Similarly, ensure that all his needs related to education and extra-curricular activities are met. Do not discourage him from buying something he requires for projects and activities. If you do not want to spend on them, teach him creative ways to do them on his own. If your child wants to spend money on giving friends a treat regularly, tell him that he can invite them home now and then. When it comes to issues such as stealing because of kleptomania or wanting to meet his needs because of addiction, you will have to seek the help of counsellors. They are issues you cannot handle on your own.

Stealing is not uncommon in children. So, fret not. With the right approach you can get your child out of this habit. Also, bear in mind that you need not be overly agitated if your preschooler brings home a playmate's toy; for, it could be sheer ignorance. And, you can easily correct this inappropriate behaviour before it develops into a habit. However, if your child develops this habit when she grows older, or she continues to steal as she grows older, you will need to address this issue seriously. 

Here's a list of books on honesty for your children.

Age: 3-5 years

Let's be honest by Hallinan

Ruthie and the (Not so) Teeny Tiny Lie by Laura Rankin

The Berenstain Bears and the Truth by Stan Berenstain

Age: 6-9 years

David gets in trouble by David Shannon

Pinky Promise: A book about telling the truth by Vanita Braver

Liar, Liar, Pants on fire by Gordon Korman

Age: 10-12 years

Victory Vault by Jake Maddox

Honesty counts by Marie Bender

Age: 13+ years

Nothing but the truth: A documentary novel by Monica Wyatt