You just found your kid playing with a toy that does not belong to him. And you have a fair idea how he got it – either he nicked the toy from a schoolmate or he shoplifted from the toy store you had gone to recently.
Either way, it is a very grim situation, and you’re extremely angry, embarrassed and ashamed that your child has actually stolen something. You keep asking him why he did it, and when he does not come up with a better answer than “I don’t know”, you mete out severe punishments and take away many of his privileges, so he learns never to steal again.
But did it work? Has your kid really learnt a life lesson from your meltdown? Or has he learnt that he should hide his stolen goodies better from now on, and lie more convincingly to cover his tracks?
When young kids start stealing, it is important not to have knee-jerk reactions to the event because their understanding of the `crime’ is not as mature and evolved as an adult. Instead, by dealing with the situation in 8 steps described below, the chances of his not stealing again improves exponentially:
STEP 1: Understand That Children Stealing Is Not Uncommon
• From an adult perspective, stealing is a great crime. But from a young child’s perspective, it can simply be a matter of taking what he liked. Stealing stuff from friends or picking up merchandize in a store isn’t such a big deal, unless taught otherwise, and you’ll be surprised how many of them do it.
STEP 2: Stay Calm Upon Discovery
• Do not let emotions rule you when you discover your kid is in possession of stolen goods. Staying calm, instead of reacting heatedly in the moment, will keep the channels of communication open and the child will be less defensive.
STEP 3: Don’t Keep Asking “Why”
• It is pointless to ask children why they did it. Because often, they really don’t know. They don’t understand private property or commerce. Until they reach a certain level of maturity, they don’t get the concept of having to pay for merchandize and why it is wrong not to do it.
Even if you ask leading questions like “How would you feel if somebody took away your own favorite toy?” it will probably not elicit the response you want because young kids – especially below the age of 7 – cannot visualize the outcome of such an event and then link the fallout with his own, present action.
Asking questions is a waste of time. By pressing on with a line of interrogation, the child will only shut down and go defensive, and nothing more of what you say will actually sink in.
STEP 4: Focus On Fixing The Problem
• Assure the child that the problem will be fixed, and you’re going to fix it “together”. As soon as making amends becomes a joint activity for the two of you, the child is ready to let his defenses down and participate in the solution.
But finding the solution means first knowing where the problem occurred, right? Exactly!
Now that your kid is open to discussion instead of shutting down in fear, you can actually discuss what happened.
If the theft happened in a store, explain how the missing toy is hurting the store-owners who work so hard to keep the place open and bring food to their family. If something was stolen from a schoolmate, imagine together how that child is probably crying right now and missing the toy so much.
Do not correlate the consequences with the child’s action. Just explore the consequences together. When there is less fear of blame coming his way, the child will be more open in his heart to empathize. And understand.
STEP 5: Now, Go Fix The Problem
• Do not send the child into a store to own up on his own. Assure him that the toy will be returned to its rightful owner, and that you will do it together.
By having you by his side, the child will be able to safely draw on his own reserve of courage – which in itself is a life lesson on dealing fearlessly with hard situations.
STEP 6: Bring Up The Issue Again A Few Days Later
• The right timing for a heart-to-heart conversation about the theft is when the dust has settled and the child has let go of some of the psychological burden of what he did.
Without making the theft a reflection of who is he, without reducing his sense of self-worth in any way, and without making it too personal, talk about why stealing is a bad action. Focus on the action and not the person who perpetrated it.
By distancing the child himself from the petty crime, he is more likely to learn the lesson you want to teach.
STEP 7: Acknowledge Examples Of Truthfulness
• Make a big deal of moments when you child has to tell an uncomfortable truth from here on. Applaud him for doing the right thing, each and every time. By reinforcing and rewarding truthfulness, you’re showing the child what a wonderful feeling it is to always tell the truth.
STEP 8: Review Your Child’s Environment
• The last step involves some uncomfortable soul searching on your part. Think about what kind of a home life the child is experiencing. Are his parents too busy with their careers and emotionally unavailable at times when the child most needs companionship and support? Was the stealing a cry for attention or a reckless act of defiance to express his anger and frustrations in any way?
What can you do to help the child feel more secure? Should you be spending more quality time with him?
Raising a child in these busy, modern times is not an easy task, especially in two-income families. Use your offspring’s negative behaviors as teaching moments for yourself too as a parent, because often times, we miss out on small, seemingly inconsequential clues that can snowball into major problems in the future.