How Do I Handle it When My Child Steals?

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles
That was the subject line of the message I received from a bewildered parent.  She and her 6-year-old son arrived home after a quick trip to the discount department store and he produced a die cast car that he was playing with.  She told me that the first thing that came to mind for her was that her son was now a thief and the thought was difficult to bear.  Below are the steps I outlined in my reply to her on how to handle the situation.

REMAIN CALM.  This is probably the most important tip of all.  A parent’s disposition in a situation can help or hinder a child from learning from the circumstances at hand.  Avoid thinking that your child is a thief and certainly don’t label him.  Do whatever you have to do to muster up the stance that it’s not the end of the world and everything will turn out fine.

RETURN TO THE STORE WITH YOUR CHILD.  Do what you can to put dinner on hold, or whatever other activities are about to happen, and return with your child to store.  Avoid the urge to scold or yell at your child and do not ask him WHY he did it.  There is a good possibility that he really doesn’t know.  Children do act impulsively with no clear intention and demanding to know why will only put him on the defense.

RETURN THE ITEM.  Go with your child into the store and ask for the store manager on duty.  Be silent and calm standing next to your son and create the silence to allow him to speak up to the manager.  If he doesn’t speak, you talk for him.  Apologize to the manager on your son’s behalf and leave in silence.  It is important that you allow the awkward silence to do the speaking to your son.  Avoid the urge to fill it with the useless parenting phrases we’ve heard so many times.

THE UNCOMFORTABLE RIDE HOME.  Be silent in the car on the ride home and avoid the urge to say things like, “What were you thinking?!”  If your son wants to talk about it, be all ears.  Your responses should be open ended questions to invite more from your child.  You can ask questions such as, “What do you think the manager was thinking,” or “What would you have done if you were the manager?”

SET A LATER TIME TO TALK ABOUT IT.  Allow some time to pass before discussing this incident.  The more you remain relaxed, the more it will sink in “organically” and allow for more effective learning for your child.  Later that night or the next day, approach your son and ask him, “Is now a good time to talk?”  If he says yes, this is where you go the heart-to-heart discussion to close the case.  It’s certainly OK to let him know how you feel about it.

Finally, you hold the key!  The more condemning and punishing you are, the more likely he will learn to lie, hide, cheat and grow defensive of your threatening approach.  Instead, conjuring up the will to remain calm and to be more understanding will increase the likelihood he won't try it again and own up to his mistakes and inappropriate behaviors in the future.


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