Stealing in Very Young Children

Your little pre-schooler just took his brother’s wallet and put it in his own drawer. Your little toddler hid the neighbor’s paper weight on her shorts pocket. And you’ve been looking for your brand new hairbrush all day, only to find that your 6-year old has taken it without permission to use for her dolly’s hair.

What’s the best way to handle stealing in young children?

Parents are right to be concerned about unethical behavior in their kids. It is, after all, a parental task to properly socialize their children, ensuring that they have appropriate behavior and good values. Clearly, “stealing” is a highly inappropriate behavior that must be stopped in its tracks.

But here’s the good news: stealing among very young children, 6 years old and below, is actually quite normal and common. More importantly, “theft” among members of this young group does not necessarily indicate future problems with the law!

Why Do Young Kids Steal?
There are many possible reasons why young children steal. Consider the following:

They Want to Explore
As children make the transition from infancy to toddlerhood, they begin to seriously explore their environment. Their curiosity drives them to touch everything around them – even objects that are forbidden to handle. They will try to break apart their toys, just to see what makes them tick.  Anything and everything is fair game for touching – even a hair brush might be interesting to a particular youngster. Consequently, when kids are very young they might take something, not because they have the intention to steal, but because they just want to examine or manipulate that object. And if they never give it back, it’s simply because they have no sense of natural order – they never return things they take for the same reason they never pick up after themselves! They’re not yet socialized and civilized.

They are Selfish by Nature
Young kids steal because they are born egocentric: that is, they think the world revolves around them. It is only when a child gets older that he or she develops empathy, or the realization that another person may have a different point of view. Thus, a child may feel justified to take something he  wants or likes, without regard for another’s feelings. He cannot imagine the upset and grief of the one who has now lost the object.

They Don’t Understand Ownership
The concept of ownership is too abstract for a very young mind. Kids only understand presence and absence; things are either in front of them or they’re not. They do not understand the idea that property belongs to others even when the others aren’t around. They also fail to understand that others may choose NOT to lend their items. Every object around them is just part of the world — there for taking!

They are Looking for Attention
Lastly, parents may not be aware that they might be reinforcing stealing behavior, by reacting with upset or anger, or even by reprimanding or punishing. They may also have accidentally indicated that stealing is funny, when having a good laugh over a long-missing object that turns out to be under the child’s pillow. Since small children are prone to do anything for attention, it’s important that parents minimize attention around the issue of taking other people’s belongings. A simple, “that belongs to your sister” followed by getting up and giving it back to the sibling, is sufficient for really small children.

How to Educate a Young “Thief”
When a child is really young, – say around 3 years old and less –  the best intervention is to just ignore the taking behavior, apart from giving instructions to give the item back (i.e. “This is Katie’s toy – let’s give it back to her.”). Reprimanding or punishing a behavior that will most often disappear on its own may even be counterproductive; it might shame or frighten the child for no  reason. Simply “childproof” your environment during these early years – keep valuables out of sight and reach and handle episodes of inappropriate touching and taking on a per-case basis.

As a child gets older, you can take the opportunity to teach him or her that stealing is wrong. You can start by introducing your 4 or 5 year old to the concepts of private property and personal ownership. You may also begin teaching which objects are objects are “public property” and which ones require permissions. Bibliotherapy – the reading of relevant story books – can be helpful at this stage. Ask your local librarian for some titles. You can also teach a young child important communication skills, showing them how to get  what they want or need by asking for it in an acceptable fashion. For example, you can teach them how to ask permission to play with a toy that they don’t own. Teaching them to return an object to its original location or owner and apologizing if they took something they shouldn’t, are also a good interventions. Again, a simple “We don’t take what isn’t ours,” is enough for this age group. “Please give it back right now.” If you suspect that your child is stealing in order to get extra attention, try offering more attention in healthier ways. If the problem doesn’t clear up, do seek professional intervention.

As a child grows a bit older – certainly by 5 and 6 years of age – go ahead and begin employing negative consequences for stealing. Follow the 2X-Rule formula for discipline (see Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe for details on this quiet, firm and respectful way to discipline children). In addition, encourage more appropriate behavior by remembering to acknowledge or even reward appropriate behaviors like asking permission before touching things and refraining from touching what shouldn’t be touched.

Other Interventions
Do keep in mind that each child is different and sometimes, children have an “itch” to take what isn’t theirs to take despite the best educational strategies of home and school. Characteristics like impulsivity, jealousy and even neediness are often inherited along with other traits and characteristics. If your child has a tendency to take things despite your best efforts, don’t blame yourself or even him! Simply work with this challenge patiently and lovingly. That will help a lot in itself. Consider Bach Flower Therapy for a little extra help: remedies in this system that may be helpful are Chestnut Bud (for impulsive, dishonest behavior), Holly (for jealousy), and Vine (for strong will, wanting what he wants). Read more about Bach Flower Remedies and how they can be used on this site (see Bach Flower Remedies).

If the problem is persistent or severe, do consult a child psychologist for further help. Breaking the taking habit early is the best approach!

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