My Child is a Thief

November 4, 2013

Question: My 5-year old son has been stealing. I found money he took from a neighbor’s house. He also came home from school with money I know for sure he didn’t get from me. He denies he took it and says he does not know where it came from. Honesty is very important to me, and I am pretty angry about it. How can we handle this?

Answer: Whenever a child does something so blatantly wrong our first impulse is to blame, lecture and accuse. This pushes a child into a corner where their only recourse is to deny the act or lie. Refrain from calling him a “thief “or a “liar. It only reinforces a negative self-image. We want to inspire him to tell the truth and make amends, and that means speaking to the conscience of a child. We need to use language that will encourage him to confide in you.

First calm yourself down; then say:
“I know you didn’t mean to do it, and if you would have known that taking the money was wrong you never would have done it.” (This softens the blow; he won’t immediately get defensive.)

If you have already yelled and lectured you can say:
“I was really upset when this first happened because this is very serious. Now I have calmed down. I know you, because I am your Mommy, and I know you never would have done this if you realized how serious it was.”
 (This shows him that you believe in his innate goodness. It will give him the courage he needs to deal with this problem.)

You now need to give him the room to make amends:
“Now you know its wrong, it is actually called stealing, you probably feel so bad about it. You must be thinking, how can I make this better?”
Give him some time to figure out how he plans to make amends. Encourage him gently:
“I know you can figure this out. I know you want to do the right thing.”
You can also give him such suggestions by letting him know what other kids might do in his situations:
“Sometimes other kids might return the money and say they are sorry…”
“Other kids might put the money in an envelope and write a note…”

Let him know you will support him:
“Whatever you decide to do, I am going to be right beside you…”
When he does return it, praise him for his actions:
“Even though it was hard, you did the right thing- you returned something that didn’t belong to you.”