Help, my son won’t stop stealing

Dear Jenny Hale

We have four children. Most of the time they are good kids and, up until now, have given us little to worry about. Our second-born son, Liam, is nine years old. He is a well-liked boy who is doing okay at school – although at times the teacher finds him impulsive and very competitive. We were recently shocked to find an item in his bedroom that we hadn’t bought ourselves. It turned out he had been in a large store with us and put the item in his pocket. I discovered it later when I picked his shorts off the floor. Liam didn’t deny taking it. We took him back to the store where he had to front up to the manager, apologise and return the item. We then assumed this was a lesson learned and that it was dealt with. Unfortunately, Liam has done the same thing again at another store and we are completely flummoxed as to why. He can’t explain why he has done this twice and has accepted the consequences without showing much concern or remorse. We don’t know what to do next.

Jenny’s tips

You have done really well helping Liam face up to the store owner and make restitution for his wrong doing. However, it does become tricky when children don’t seem to get the message. One overlooked response to stealing is not to overreact by giving it full-blown attention and focus. It can backfire as the drama and negative attention makes it surprisingly worthwhile for the child. A firm, calm and stern approach is more helpful than angry words and long lectures.

Many children don’t plan their wrongdoing. Liam, like many children, could be acting impulsively because he is tempted and doesn’t have a plan for what to do – rather than purely taking something he likes the look of.
Start a conversation with Liam discussing temptation and how everybody experiences it. Talk to him about what you have done in the past when you have wanted something you knew you couldn’t have. Children are often relieved to know others struggle, and it can remove the shame that accompanies their behaviour. Explain that everyone gets to choose how they behave and that from now on he will need to take a ‘plan’ with him when he goes to the shops.

The plan could look as simple as this –

  • When I go to the shops and am tempted to put something in my pocket, I will need to keep walking.
  • Instead of stealing something, I will do the right thing and leave it alone.
  • I will go over my lines, “It is okay to want something – it is not okay to take something”.
  • “I will feel stronger the more I practise this. I will feel good about making the right choice.”

Invite Liam to talk to you about whether he uses his plan. He needs your firm and loving support. Stay vigilant as it can be easy to get caught up in the busyness of life. It helps children to know that we are treating these issues seriously. Some families have taken their children to the local constable for a stern talk and this has added weight to the seriousness of stealing.

Liam needs to be given the opportunity to rebuild the trust he has lost. Let him earn pocket money and have times when he can make his own purchases in a shop. Let him have some control in other areas of his life too – try giving ‘techno dollars’ that he can spend on screen time and monitor his own usage.

The outcome

Liam’s family reported success on more than one level. Talking to Liam about a plan opened up some really meaningful discussion. He had been feeling overlooked in the family and was keen to have some regular time with his parents, just playing cards or going for bike rides.

The ‘plan’ was well-received and Liam told his dad how he had needed it on a family shopping trip and while at his friend’s house. He liked the fact that he knew what to do if he was tempted again. He even said that he didn’t get as tempted anymore, which might be to do with the plan being ready in his head. He was the one that offered a solution to whether his mum and dad trust him when out shopping. He said his parents could check his pockets before he left a store. They are currently doing this, but plan to cut down to only random checks.

His parents are realistic – they know it is early days, but are offering Liam more leeway in taking on some new responsibilities. Liam is helping in the kitchen and is cooking more things on his own. That has been a big learning curve as his mum realised how much she micro-managed everything without letting Liam make his own mistakes and learn from them. A real buzz was the opportunity to use the ‘techno dollars’ and Liam felt trusted and respected for his ability to monitor it independently.

Overall, the family felt that something negative – finding their child stealing – had stopped them in their tracks in a good way. There was more talking as a family, more fun together and a shift towards more independence and opportunities for all the children to think through issues, rather than simply be told what to do.