Dear Mr. Dad: We just got back from shopping and I noticed that my 7-year-old son had a small toy in his pocket. When I asked where he got it, he said he “took” it from the store. I can’t believe my child shoplifts—that is not how we raised him. What should I do?
A: Children steal for a variety of reasons. Toddlers and preschoolers don’t know they’re “stealing.” In their minds they’re just taking something that they really want to have. They haven’t yet developed enough self-control or a strong sense of right and wrong—let alone the difference between legal and illegal—to make them keep their hands in their pockets. They don’t understand that it’s not okay to take other people’s stuff without paying for it. Fortunately, they’re pretty compliant and a word or two from a parent about why stealing is wrong is usually enough to keep it from happening again. At least for a while.
Tweens and teens are a bit more complicated. They might shoplift as a way of rebelling against you and your spouse, the owner of the store, or society in general. And if their friends shoplift too—and make it look and sound easy, fun, and cool—you can add “peer pressure” to the list.
A child your son’s age, however, is plenty old enough to understand what theft is, and to understand that it’s against the law and could get him (and you) into big trouble. The place to start is to try to find out why he took that toy. There could be a number of reasons. Maybe he wanted it but thought you wouldn’t buy it for him if he asked. Or maybe he saw his friends steal and thought it was so “easy” that he could do it too without getting caught or punished. (In my case, at that age, I wanted to be just like my hero, Alexander Mundy in It Takes a Thief, who was so smooth that he could steal a woman’s earrings—while she was wearing them. The clerk who caught me at the Five and Dime wasn’t terribly impressed.)
Another possibility is that your son actually did want you—consciously or subconsciously—to catch him. Maybe he feels you don’t pay enough attention to him otherwise (and in child-think negative attention is better than none). Or he may have some other deep-seated emotional problems that would be best handled by a child psychologist or family counseling.
Whatever the reason for this behavior, take this opportunity to talk to your son and explain why stealing is wrong and disrespectful to the victim. For example, you could tell him that when he takes items without paying for them, no matter how small or inexpensive they may be, someone (a shop owner, a friend, etc.) will be hurt and lose money. Ask him to imagine how upset he would feel if someone stole something that belonging to him.
Then, take your son back to the store so he can apologize to the manager and pay for the toy from his own allowance. The embarrassment he’ll probably feel when he’s marched back to the store will hopefully serve as a lasting lesson and a deterrent.
Of course, if this wasn’t the first incident and your son has a pattern of stealing or “borrowing” things and not returning them, you may want to seek professional help. It’s better to do this now, while he is still young, than wait until this behavior gets him in real trouble.