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What Do I Do If My Kid Steals Something?

Advice from a policeman, a bank robber and others

When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.

The Very Basic Concern

The four of us were alone in the hallway of the daycare center: Me, my four-year-old daughter, my daughter’s friend and their teacher. Despite the fact that she was weepy and uncomfortable, I encouraged my daughter to go ahead, and she proceeded to return the plastic bear that she’d taken from her friend and apologized for having taken it. After that, I gave her a big hug and told her how proud I was of her for doing the right thing. She proceeded with her day and I with mine.

This was after discovering, the previous night, that she’d taken the bear from her friend because she liked it and wanted it for herself. Since this had never happened before, I suspected nothing. That, and occasionally she’d win little prizes at school, so it didn’t seem out of place. But when my wife suggested that we check tomorrow with the teacher just to be sure it didn’t belong to anyone else, I’m proud to say that, unprompted, my little girl came out and told me that she’d taken the bear from her friend and — already somewhat familiar with the concept — she admitted that she did steal it.

Given the way she told me what happened, I was proud of her for being so honest, despite her tears and obvious discomfort. And frankly, while sometimes I feel like I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing as a father, I think I handled this one pretty well.

That said, I’d just like to be sure I did everything right on this one. I have to admit that if my kid were any older, or any less honest, I’m not sure what the hell I’d do. So, God forbid this happens again — especially something way more serious than taking a toy from a friend — I’d like to be prepared.

Basically: What do I do if my kid steals something?

The Expert Advice

Theresa Russo, PhD in human development and family studies: With really young kids, like preschool age, they’re very impulsive. They see something, they want it, they take it. For that age, while you can try to have them return the item themselves, it might be difficult. They could end up having a temper tantrum and they may not understand why they can’t have it, so if you can’t get them to do it, I’d still return the item to whoever they stole it from with your child there and model that behavior for them.

Their moral development tends to start between ages five and seven — that’s when they’re starting to understand right from wrong. They’re still impulsive, though, so if they take something, you can explain to them that this behavior is wrong and that they can’t take something that doesn’t belong to them. At this age, you’re trying to communicate the empathy piece to them and explain that they should think about how that other person feels now that they’ve taken this. Also, you can ask them how they’d feel if someone took their toy. They may not fully get it at this age, but you’re trying to get them to understand the other person’s perspective.

For young kids, some people feel that if a kid is too shy, the parent can return it for them, but I don’t agree with that. They need to be part of that process because you doing it for them isn’t teaching them anything. It may be a hard thing for them to apologize and to admit that they’re wrong, but those are important life skills to learn.

It’s also important for parents to understand that this is a normal part of development. Kids lie and steal — they just do. This behavior is very normal and it doesn’t mean they’re a bad kid who is going to grow up to be a bank robber or something like that.

Anthony Curcio, a bank robber, father of two, youth speaker and children’s book author: If I were to catch one of my daughters stealing, the number one thing I’d do is to try not to freak out. If someone starts screaming and yelling, the kid will get scared and they’ll start to withhold information so that they don’t get yelled at more. So just remember to stay calm and remind yourself that this isn’t the end of the world.

The next thing I’d say to do is to find out why they stole, because there’s always a reason. Was it to fit in? Was it for attention? When I did what I did, it was during the financial crisis and my real estate career was in the dump. I had a new baby at the time, and I felt like I had to do this because I needed to maintain my standard of living.

Now, of course, that was just me telling myself that and it doesn’t excuse any of what I did, but my point is that there’s always a reason behind such an action, and I’d encourage a parent to listen to their child and try to find out what that reason is, then address that specific reason. So if it was to impress their friends, you can ask them, “Are these people really your friends if you need to impress them in this way?” If it was for the excitement of it, you might want to explain that there are other outlets for excitement that don’t hurt other people, and maybe you can enroll them in a sport or something like that. If they were pressured into doing it because they were with friends who were also stealing, you can try to separate them from those friends. Or if it’s because they couldn’t afford it, you can make a plan for them to work and earn the money to later buy the item.

No matter the reasoning though, I’d always make sure that they make things right and to return that item themselves, face-to-face with the person they stole it from. The reason it’s so important to do this is because this is going to be something that the kid will remember, and in a world where everything is done via text and so much of our communication is so impersonal, it’s important for them to understand that when they steal something, it’s a personal act. While this may be difficult for them to do, my thinking is that if they were brazen enough to steal something, they can be brazen enough to go and apologize for what they did.

Jim McDowell, a father of two and a chief of police in Goshen, New York: For a really young kid who steals, you can explain to them that this is wrong and have them return the item, but once a kid is 13 and, say, they get caught for shoplifting, that’s a different story and a lot of what happens depends upon whether or not a store owner wants to press charges.

In a situation like this, where maybe a young kid stole from the mall or something, I’d try to get the parents down there and have the parents meet with the owner and to have the kid apologize. I’d also encourage the owner to explain how hard it is to run a business, because kids tend to think, Hey, this guy owns a store, so that means he’s rich, but maybe he used his last dime to open that store. Maybe he’s got three kids that he’s trying to put through college and he’s trying to keep his prices fair, and that someone stealing cuts into his profits and affects all of that.

I’ve also had cases where a kid is a bit older and I thought it best for the kid to go before a judge, particularly in cases where it may not be their first time. It would then be brought into family court and the judge would decide if the child needs to be enrolled into the PINS [Persons in Need of Supervision] Program. While this might seem harsh, sometimes it’s really what kids need in order to gain perspective and learn from their actions, particularly while they’re still young, because if they’re 16 years old and stealing, then they’re put through the system and fingerprinted and they’re considered a youth offender. The PINS program, however, might help a child get their act together before they get to that point.

Regardless of the specifics though, I’d say that it’s always important for the parents to have the child return whatever it is they stole and make up for their mistake themselves, because if a parent doesn’t do this or just pays the restitution and thinks that’s enough, the kid isn’t going to learn anything.

Todd, father of two and a local business owner: I’ve had a number of instances where children have stolen from my store over the years, but one time in particular really sticks out to me. It was when a girl and two boys, all around nine years old, came in to return bottles for the bottle deposit return. It caught my attention because the kids were on bikes and they returned these huge bags of cans, but I was busy at the time so I didn’t pay it much mind and had my employee give them their money for the returns.

Later on, the girl who was in the group came back to the store and handed me the money, explaining that she’d taken those bottles from our back loading dock, which means that they’d already been returned by someone else. I could see it was difficult for her so I just held back at first and let her speak. I then thanked her for doing the right thing and told her that if she ever needed something that she couldn’t afford to pay for, that she could just come talk to me. I explained to her that this is a local store in a small community, and if she really needed something, she could come to me. Just don’t steal.

She understood and left. Later on, her mother, who was a regular at the store, came in and I told her what happened. At first the mother reacted by saying that she knew those other boys were a bad influence, but I chimed in to say how great it was that her daughter had done the right thing — of her own volition, no less.

When this kind of thing happens to a small business owner, your first inclination is to be upset about it. You’re struggling already and your profit margins are really thin, so when something is stolen or an item needs to be thrown out or an employee discounts something for their friends, all of those things really nickel-and-dime you to death. But you also try to remember that this is just a kid and they saw something that they wanted and either they didn’t have the means to get it, or their parents wouldn’t get it for them, so oftentimes, whatever they did was an impulse.

I’ll give you one more thing. When I was about eight years old, I was out shopping with my mom. We’d loaded up the car and were all buckled in and she’d noticed that the girl at the register hadn’t charged her for the oranges. So, despite the fact that we were already pressed for time, my mother got out of the car, got the oranges out of the bag, and went back inside and paid for them. That was my lesson in doing the correct thing and that still carries with me as an adult. I remember when my wife and I had gone to Sam’s Club one time and this woman had forgotten to scan a bunch of stuff in the bottom of the cart — it was like $150 worth of stuff, so we went back inside and did the same thing my mother had done. And while some people might think it’s cool to get away with getting $150 worth of free stuff, that’s not the point: The point is that you’re morally obligated to do the right thing and by doing so, you’re setting an example for your children.