Children Who Steal
By Leah Davies, M.Ed.
Stealing is taking things that belong to others without their permission. The act is common in young children because they tend to be self-centered and feel that it is all right to take what they want from others. A child’s true understanding of the concept of stealing usually occurs between the ages of five and seven. By this time, children can understand the idea of ownership and realize that taking things that belong to others is wrong.
Motives for stealing can differ from child to child, and any one child can steal for a variety of reasons. Children may steal because:
Children who frequently steal tend to exhibit the following characteristics: impulsivity, loneliness, detachment, insensitivity, boredom, anger and low self-esteem. They often have difficulty trusting others and forming close relationships. When school personnel demonstrate regard for all students and provide a mutually supportive school environment, theft is less likely to occur.
What can teachers do?
1. Explain that stealing means taking something that belongs to someone else and that it is wrong, unacceptable and dishonest. Clarify that when an individual takes something without asking or paying for it, someone will be hurt. For example, if a child takes someone¹s pencil, he will be unable to do his work. If girl’s bracelet is stolen, she might get in trouble at home.
2. Teach the concept of ownership and how it makes others feel to have something stolen from them. Use examples and ask children questions like, "How would you feel if someone liked your new coat, took it, and said it was his?"
3. Compliment and reinforce honest behavior in students.
4. Ask the guidance counselor to teach lessons on honesty.
5. Invite a police officer as a guest speaker to explain the ramifications of theft.
How to Handle a Stealing Situation for First Offenders
1. Remain calm. Deal with the situation in a straightforward manner. Show your disapproval, but do not interrogate, lecture or humiliate the child.
2. If you are sure who took an item, talk to the child privately. Do not ask, “Did you take the money?” Instead say something like, “I know you took the money. I am disappointed because I thought I could trust you.” Then you might ask, “Is there a reason you needed the money?” Then listen and try to understand the problems the child may be having.
3. Students who steal need to experience a consequence such as apologizing, returning or replacing the item or making restitution in some other way, as well as losing a privilege. You need to decide what will happen if the child steals again and let him or her know what the consequence will be.
4. If you are not sure who took an item, provide an opportunity for the “taker” to return it and save face. For example say, “Whoever found Adam’s hat needs to return it.” Or say, “Everyone look in your backpack to see if Adam¹s hat was accidentally put in it.”
5. Do not label the child “bad” or a “thief.” Let the child experience a “clean slate.”
6. Take time to ask yourself why the behavior occurred:
7. Limit the opportunity for theft to occur by locking up valuable items and by closely observing the child.
What if the above methods are ineffective, and the student does not express remorse, continues to steal, or has other behavioral problems?
For a related article see, To Tell the Truth.