How to Handle a Little Shoplifter

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

StealingWhen I was younger, my mother would take my sister and I to browse through little shops in our hometown full of local artisan’s crafts. She never bought anything; she just liked to look. On one of the trips when I was about eight years old, I spied a replica of a U.S. quarter about the size of a saucer and I just had to have it. I didn’t have any money with me, and when I asked my mom if she could buy it for me, she said no. So, when no one was looking, I put it in my coat pocket.

A couple days later, my mom was looking for a pen in the desk in my bedroom and opened the drawer where I had hidden the toy coin. Remembering back, I realize that she knew immediately what had happened. She turned to me and asked where I got the toy coin. I first said that I didn’t remember but then I said that I took it. She asked me why, and I said that I really wanted it. Then she picked it up and left my room.

Normally, my mom would’ve lost her temper and yelled and spanked. This time, though, she was very quiet and looked sad. I didn’t get defensive like I normally would’ve; instead, I went to my room, laid down in my bed, and cried. Later, she came in and told me how disappointed she was in me, and I told her I was sorry for making her sad. We hugged, and the next day, she drove me to the store where she asked for the store manager. I handed the toy coin back, told him I was sorry, and promised that I would never shoplift again. And I meant it.

Remembering back, I don’t think my mom’s reaction was intentional. I think she had been caught off-guard and didn’t know what else to do. But her reaction really sticks out in my mind. Few other lessons had sunk in as quickly as that one did.

AP Doesn’t Prevent Challenging Behavior — It Gives Us Tools to Deal with It

Just because we are raising our children in a way that promotes conscious thinking in their own behavior toward others doesn’t mean we won’t encounter challenges along the way. Even the most attached child could be tempted to shoplift if his curiosity is piqued and he has a strong desire for a particular object. So, how should we react?

Christina Breda Antoniades gives a few tips in her Parenting article, “What to Do When Children Steal,” for children ages 5-8:

  1. Ask what happened. Your child will be less tempted to lie if you state that you know she stole before you ask for the reasons why.
  2. Express calm disapproval. Tell your child how shoplifting hurts others.
  3. Talk about the family rule regarding no stealing.
  4. Guide your child in making amends by giving the object back to the owner and apologizing. Go with your child to help her feel more comfortable. Also, you may need to role-play with your child at home first.

In following Attachment Parenting International’s Principle of Practicing Positive Discipline, we need to make sure that we set firm boundaries for our children through nonviolent, compassionate ways. This can feel more difficult to do as our children grow older and we want them to be able to make good decisions on their own – or we expect them, too. But we need to remember to parent not according to how we were raised or what we expect of our children, but to their child development stage.

Reasons Behind Juvenile Shoplifting

According to a article, “Yikes! My Kid is Stealing,” by Anthony Kane, MD, children ages 4-5 can’t steal because they have no concept of ownership and therefore no concept of stealing. For the older child, there are five more common reasons behind shoplifting:

  • Lack of self-control — Some children have less impulse control than others, even if they know that stealing is wrong.
  • Physical needs (real or perceived) are not being met — These could be basic needs such as clothes and food, or perceived needs like school supplies that would make a child feel like he fits in more with his peers at school.
  • Lack of attention — Kane says this is the most common reason: That the child feels an emotional void and lacks the ability or opportunity to express his feelings of loneliness, and stealing is a way to express discontent and seek gratification through both the thrill of taking a risk and enjoying the stolen item. This can happen even in loving homes if the child seems to be having trouble making friends with his peers, or if the child perceives she is not receiving enough attention from her parents, even if her parents believe they are meeting the child’s emotional needs.
  • Need for more independence — Some children have difficulty dealing with their desire for independence but their inability to be so.
  • Peer pressure — This is especially true for older children who begin to orientate toward their peers more than their parents.

Additional Tips to Teaching Your Child Not to Steal

What does Kane recommend to parents whose child shoplifts?

  1. Stay calm. Remember, stealing is just another opportunity to teach your child and doesn’t mean that you’ve failed as a parent or that your child is turning into a criminal.
  2. Do not accuse or confront your child. You must catch your child in the act.
  3. Don’t ask for explanations; just state that stealing is wrong.
  4. Never imply that your child is bad. The behavior is wrong, but not your child. Don’t call your child a thief, dishonest, a liar, or another label.
  5. Guide your child in making amends. If your child stole from you, make it clear that he must pay you back.
  6. Hide temptation.
  7. Once the situation is resolved, put the incident into the past. Don’t bring it up again.
  8. Consider why your child shoplifted and work to strengthen the emotional bond between you and her.
  9. Model honesty. Just as infants and toddlers learn my watching their parents, so do older children and teens. Show concern about the property rights of others. For example, if the grocery store cashier made a mistake in counting your change, return the extra money. Or, if you see someone drop a dollar bill or leave the restaurant without her purse, do your best to return the items to their owners.

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