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When Children Steal

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Does the child in the photo look like he is going to steal some cookies?

Tuesday, August 11 2009, Perri Klass, MD, writing for the Science Section of the New York Times wrote an interesting article about children who steal. The article should come as a great relief to parents of young kids who fear that their boy or girl may become part of the list of America’s Most Wanted. Dr. Klass quotes a variety of experts in the field of child development who state that stealing is very common in children from ages two to nine and even ten years old.

According to the experts quoted in the article, there are a variety of reasons why children steal. For example, a two year old child might take something from another child because, at that age, there is little or no understanding of the concept to sharing. In fact, at age two, groups of children are usually described as being involved in parallel play where there is no real interaction between children. In other words, two-year-olds have no understanding of “rules” that guide play at a later age.

By the time children reach the age of six or seven, they understand rules, regulations and, to some extent, consequences. They may take something from another child or shoplift from a store. Knowing right and wrong, they may try to hide the ill begotten “goods.” The motivation for this activity can be as simple as testing the limits.

One of the most important messages of the article it two fold: 1. Parents need not get worked up into an emotional state for fear that their child has taken the first step towards career of criminal behavior and, 2. Parents need to talk gently to their child, explain why stealing is wrong and ask the child to make restitution and apologize. In other words, the normal episode of childhood stealing is a “teachable moment” during which children truly learn what is right and wrong in the outside world. It is important for parents to refrain from exaggerating the happening, to remain calm and to talk calmly to their children.

I remember stealing from another child when I was very young. The other boy bought this silly little plastic toy. I wanted it because I wanted it. He saw me steal it from him (what a master thief I was) and I had to return it. He told me he would punch me in the nose if I did not return it. I returned it and the episode was over. I haven’t stolen anything since.

Your comments and questions are welcome.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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