In New York, a mother is suing the police department for arresting and handcuffing her seven year old son for stealing five dollars back in December 2012. Apparently the police responded to a call for assault and theft and admitted that the child was arrested. He was taken to a a Bronx station and then transferred to a precint house, handcuffed to a chair and was questioned for more than four hours. This fiasco began because the child in question apparently hit another child and five dollars came up missing. The “prisoner” continued to plead his innocence and later, a nine year old boy admitted to taking the money.
It was an unfornuate incident, but you have to wonder what happened to the logic that stealing is a common occurance with elementary age children. Adults that do not understand child development will tend to punish the child (shame, threaten, humiliate,take away privileges, ect.) rather than use discipline, which means “to teach.”
So why does a child steal or lie and how do you handle it? First, the child’s age and developmental stage needs consideration. For example, children under the age of three do not steal or lie on purpose. They are simply discovering things about their world and do not understand that certain objects belong to another person. Children this age tend to be self-centered, may have poor impulse control or have not learned the concept of sharing. At this young age, they do not understand the consequences of these behaviors.
As children mature, around the ages of five and seven, they begin to understand the idea of ownership of toys, money, etc. Some reasons they may steal could be a need to test limits, have poor impulse control or they don't think of the consequences, Using logical consequence will help the child feel the impact of their choices.
Stealing is a serious issue, morally and legally. So how do you handle a first offender?
- Though it is hard not to expess anger, don't over react and stay calm.
- Give your child a chance to explain.
- Ask opened ended questions such as "What did you plan to do with the money/toy/gum?"
- It is ok to let them know you are displeased, but avoid shaming because you want your child to feel safe and share more information. Just expain your expectations that stealing is never right.
- Explain to the child that stealing is never acceptable and people are hurt when someone steals from another person. Give examples the child can relate to such as 'If someone stole your bicycle you couldn't ride in the neighborhood with your friends."
- Brainstorm with the child an appropriate logical consequence. Using the incident as a "teachable moment" will help your child understand cause and effect.
- Always make sure the consequence ties into the behavior. If a child steals they need to make restitution. If they have stolen money, have your child do extra chores to earn money to pay it back. If a toy is taken, return the toy and have the child choose one of his toys to give to the child.
- After the logical consequence has been completed, do not mention the incident any more and let the child have a clean slate.
But what if the stealing becomes chronic and a pattern has developed. At this point you have to explore the motivation behind the behavior. Does the child feel a lack of control over their life? Are they seeking your attention? Is a need not being met? Are they experiencing pressure from his/her peers?
Remember, children learn by watching parent's so make sure you are modeling appropriate behaviors. Children always live up to a parent's expectation, so if you refer to your child as a thief, "bad kid," or a dishonest child, chances are your child will fulfill your expectations.