Maybe your child swiped some hair accessories from her sister, or took a small toy from a friend’s bedroom, or—yikes—walked out of a store with something you most definitely did not buy. Whatever the offense, it can set off alarms in your head. Is this a preview of things to come? Where did I go wrong? Fast forward to the teen years: Am I going to be the mom or dad who has to claim my kid at the mall security office?
Between about 4 and 6, sticky-fingered moves are developmentally appropriate—”not that it’s okay, but it represents their stage of moral development,” says Amy Armstrong, a parent coach and therapist in Columbus, Ohio.
To get a child to stop taking things, the key is to avoid a harsh judgmental response and instead gently show a better way.
WHY it happens:
Kids this age tend to act according to their own self-interest. Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg famously mapped out the six stages of moral development, which take all of childhood (and sometimes beyond) to work through. Preschoolers are still way back in stage 2. They haven’t yet internalized telling right from wrong. They define “right” behavior by asking themselves, “What’s in it for me?” and “What do I have to do to get what I want?” Armstrong says.
Their idea of ownership is still fluid. Because they’re so focused on themselves, young children sometimes “wish” things into being. They still have trouble sorting fantasy from reality in their minds. They really, really wish that hair bow or truck belonged to them—so they take it and pretend it does.
Kids this young don’t fully anticipate how their actions have consequences for others. They don’t think much about how taking something will cause someone else to miss it or feel upset or sad. Yeah, it’s a pretty self-centered and impulsive way to be. But it’s also completely normal for this age.
Your goal is to nip these mostly innocent bloopers before they become a really bad habit, in a supportive, not scary, way. Your response is important because there’s also an element of behavior testing: What happens if I do this? What can I get away with?
Stay calm in the moment. It’s hard—especially when the theft happens outside your own home, like at a store or a friend’s house. You’re apt to be absolutely mortified by what your child has done (because as a grown-up, you’ve already evolved through all those stages of moral development). But it’s important to avoid the “big reaction.” It’ll keep your child from going on the defensive or shutting down.
Try to avoid an accusatory approach, like, “You shouldn’t have taken that! That doesn’t belong to you!”
Better: “Oh, that looks like something that was in the store. Let’s make sure that item that we didn’t buy gets back in the store.” Or “That looks like it belongs to Katie, so let’s give it back to her.”
Kids are more likely to listen to and cooperate with a less intense approach, Armstrong says. And that receptivity is what you absolutely need in order to turn this into a moment for learning.
Affirm what you think your child was feeling. Without condoning the act of taking something, you can let your child know it’s okay to want things and that you understand the impulse to grab it: “Oh, you really like that; it’s so cute. It’s something you really want—so maybe you can get it for your birthday.”
Then matter-of-factly explain the rules. Although your child doesn’t developmentally grasp the idea of stealing—taking things is more about fulfilling a want—you can review the basics he or she needs to learn: We can’t take things that don’t belong to us. When we want things that aren’t ours, we have to ask for them. We don’t pick up things in a store without asking. We can’t take things home from a store without paying for them.
Focus on the taking, not on the lying to cover it up. Things can feel a little more complicated when your child lies to defend himself and cover up for his transgression. A double vice!
Lying is also an age-appropriate behavior for preschoolers. “This is still part of the child advocating for her self-interest,” Armstrong says. Consider denial in this case a form of wishful thinking.
Rather than trying to address a second moral problem on the spot, she suggests, stick to talking about motivation and teaching a better way.
Follow through with a reasonable consequence. A hot-fingered kid never gets to keep what she took. That would only reward the mistake. But punishment isn’t necessary either.
Better: Making amends. For something taken from a friend, say something like, “Let’s bring Jack back his flashlight. I bet he misses it and will be very happy when you give it back to him.” Have your child hand over the toy, not you.
For something stolen from a store, you can say, “Let’s walk back into the store. We need to make sure this stays in the store if we didn’t buy it.”
Help your child turn in the item (rather than doing it for him or her). But don’t put her on the spot to apologize or talk to the manager. Know your child: Some can manage this, but others freeze up with intimidation or fear. Children this age need emotional safety, especially when learning a tough lesson. You might explain to the clerk what happened in terms your child will hear, reinforcing your message: “Lou walked out of the store with this without paying for it, and we just realized it. So we’re bringing it back to you because that’s the right thing to do.”
“When parents have their back, the child witnesses that problems can be solved without a big emotional upheaval,” Armstrong says.
Offer different ways for your child to get what she wants. The good news about this stage in development is that your child wants to learn how to get what she covets. You just have to teach her how to get her desires met in more socially acceptable ways.
Say something like: “Next time we’re in a store, remember to tell me if there’s something that you want.” That doesn’t mean you’ll cave and buy it, of course. You can instead suggest that your child add the item to her birthday list. Or think of ways she might earn it by helping around the house.
Change the environment or put systems in place so that taking is less possible. Armstrong suggests making taking harder to do or to get away with, especially if the problem persists.
Suppose your son is taking from his sister’s candy stash—tell him he can’t keep any candy of his own. He’ll have to turn over his candy to you to hold and dispense (so it’ll be obvious that if he has candy it’s not his). Encourage his sister to find safe places to relocate her stash.
Maybe in a store your child has to hold your hand for the next few times.
Nurture respect between siblings. Older siblings are common theft victims. Armstrong recommends listening and validating the sibling’s feelings when they get upset. Instead of defending the littler one, say something like, “That really bothers you a lot. I get that it’s important that you know things are right where you put them. How can we make this work?”
Figure out together how she can keep her things safe without making her younger sibling feel bad for wanting them. It’s important that older siblings understand that younger kids are learning to make good decisions. Don’t let them label the taker a “thief” (or worse).
“Kids can see themselves according to their labels,” Armstrong says.
A stage for everyone to work through and leave behind
“Parents are afraid,” Armstrong says. “They tend to think that any behavior is naturally going to increase with age, and that is absolutely not true.” Erase visions of juvenile delinquency down the road.
“All a child needs to know is that it’s okay to want something,” she adds. “But there’s a right way to get an item for yourself, and taking it is not the right way.”
Like everything else your little sponge is soaking up, that’s a lesson that will get through.