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Why do young children sometimes steal? And what should parents do about it?


Of course, if children steal, parents can be very concerned. They may wonder if they have taught their child properly, if it is just a phase, or if they are getting their hands on a young offender.

But before parents panic, they should think about why their child took something that doesn’t belong to them.

First, it is important to take into account the age of the child.

When do children learn that stealing is wrong?

Very young children have no concept of ownership. If they see something that interests them, they’ll probably reach out and just take it.

Child experts to believe a sense of ownership begins around age two, but a full understanding of other people’s property rights develops around age three to five.

Children under the age of five may have no concept of ownership.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry advises that ages three to five is an especially important time for parents to actively teach children about ownership and fairness. Model good behavior around respecting property, which means not bringing extra stationery home from work, or bragging about the cooked chicken on the supermarket cart hook you got away with without paying for it.

If they know it’s wrong, why are they doing it?

Motives to steal should be investigated and understood before deciding on course of action, as this is not necessarily a sign of moral failure.

Some young children with low impulse control may steal instant gratification – especially items that are considered low value. They may think it’s just a few lollipops, or a cookie or two, no one will notice.

Others may have difficulty presenting everyone would be angry or disappointed if they took other people’s belongings.

Read more: Milestone development at age four helps kids tell lies, play hide and seek and read cards

Bored children may simply steal for a sense of excitement or to get attention.

Another important aspect is whether they steal alone or with peers. Children may steal as part of pranking behavior because of peer pressure or to impress their friends.

Girl in purple sweater looks at mobile phone
Children may steal because they are pressured by peers.

Children who come from poor backgrounds may steal to get items they cannot afford. The item may be highly prized within their peer group, or it may be the latest fad item everyone in the group has.

Read more: ‘I go for the food’: what children and young people told us about why they steal from homes

Some children may steal to get the attention of adults or peers. Or there may be emotional or psychological problems and the child is using stealing as one way of dealing.

Stealing may indicate that a child is struggling with something deeper and needs help addressing the root cause of his behavior. Parents, carers and educators should approach the situation with empathy and understanding and work with the child to find more constructive ways to deal with their emotions and needs.

My child stole something. What should I do?

Here are some steps parents and guardians can take:

1. Keep calm and avoid overreacting. Approach the situation calmly. Shouting loudly or punishing children makes them more likely to steal again in the future.

2. Talk to the child. Ask them why they stole and listen to their answer. Try to understand what motivated them to steal and address any underlying issues. Explain why stealing is wrong and what consequences it can have.

Read more: How to get your kids to talk about their feelings

3. Say stealing is wrong. It is important to teach children the importance of honesty and trust. Explain how stealing can damage trust between people and damage relationships.

4. Remove the goods, if possible. Make sure they don’t profit from the theft or withhold goods. Sometimes parents decide not to return goods for fear of the consequences, but your child is not allowed to keep the goods.

5. Establish clear consequences. Make sure they understand that their actions have consequences. This may include returning the stolen item, apologizing to the person they stole from, and completing chores or community service to make amends.

Mother talks to child
Explain how stealing can break trust.

6. Avoid scare tactics. Don’t threaten to tell the police or constantly label them as naughty, a thief or bad person. Once you’ve dealt with it, don’t bring it up again.

7. Monitor their behavior. Monitor your child’s behavior in the future to make sure they don’t steal again. Praise them when they make good choices and show honesty.

8. Seek professional help. If your child’s behavior persists or escalates, you may need to seek professional help from a psychologist who specializes in working with children.

Remember that stealing is not necessarily a serious problem, but it should not be ignored. With the right approach and support, parents and carers can help their child develop a sense of ownership, understand the consequences of stealing and prevent future stealing.

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