In consulting with parents, there is an awful moment that comes up sometimes where a kid is found to be stealing. I’m not talking about a pre-schooler for whom “I see it, I want it” is developmentally normal, but rather for an older child who knows better.
With a six or seven-year-old stealing is essentially a teachable moment where the limit must be set, restitution made and a consequence to help teach that crime doesn’t pay. In a column a few months back on this subject (http://tiny.cc/Ijgcy), Dr. Perri Klass, emphasizes not trying to scare kids straight (i.e. by taking them on a little trip to see the jail) as this reinforces the notion that you see them as “bad” rather than that you see them as essentially honest and just needing a bit of guidance. At this stage of development, good parenting hinges on paying careful enough attention so that you catch them if they steal.
Perhaps the poster-child for not taking the kid to jail is Alfred Hitchcock, not only the master of suspense, but of anxiety. His dad took him to jail for a night as a child and he attributes this trauma to his later problems with relationships as well as food.
I remember a situation where a mom was heart-broken because her late elementary school daughter was stealing from her. While this child essentially had everything she needed, it seemed that there were a lot of issues in the house where money was a form of control and withholding between the parents. It seemed as if the daughter was unconsciously wanting the mom to hear the behavior as some sort of cry for help. Often children end up making us feel pretty much the same way that they are feeling in a sort of unspoken transmission of pain—in this case the feeling of betrayal and being “ripped off” by her dad’s attitude seemed to have something to do with it. If the proof was in the pudding, the girl stopped her behavior once the mom seemed to get the message and find a way to validate her daughter’s feelings.
This situation relates to what some call “symbolic stealing,” meaning that it’s not really about wanting the object so much as acting out against the person who they steal from. An example of this might be stealing from another kid your kid envies, unconsciously wanting to somehow have the feelings or skills that the envied kid seems to possess. This would also be akin to sabotaging a sibling’s or a rival’s project.
Finally, stealing without remorse, and as a repeating pattern, is a significant warning sign that a kid needs help. This raises questions about what’s being stolen and why (i.e. if they’re taking your money, is it to buy drugs?). The overall thrust at every age is to help kids be a part of the group in a pro-social manner. Stealing is a low-self-esteem move that says, and reinforces to the one who steals, “I can’t get what I want or need by legitimate means, so I must steal to meet my needs.”
Helping kids identify what they really want, from skills, to feelings of luxury to status items… and then supporting them to work toward their dreams (i.e. working toward a purchase that they can then be proud of) and/or helping them question if the things they want will really deliver the feelings they seek, is part of good parenting. Sometimes kids just want to know that we’re paying attention, care what they are up to, and are willing to set the limits that convey our love.
I worked with a young group home kid who was caught stealing on a house outing, and I later learned from him that his whole family would go stealing together. This certainly put his behavior in a wider context and broke my heart rather than made me think of him as a thief.
So let’s dedicate today to thinking more deeply and compassionately about children who steal, striving to help them find positive ways to get their needs met and steering clear of shaming and criminalizing them. Hopefully this will benefit our own kids and all our collective children.