Sticky Fingers

Sticky Fingers

Over the last several years, I have received numerous emails asking for help on specific topics. One question I get quite often is:

“My child (4-7) keeps stealing! What do I do?!

First, I would like to normalize this behavior a bit. Most children do not have the self-control at this age to combat the VERY REAL desire to take something. (I actually know big people with self-control problems…but that’s a different blog…)

Here are a few things that I tell these parents:

  1. Your child probably won’t turn out to be a thief and land in prison…
  2. The true end-goal isn’t to simply stop the stealing – it is to build up your child’s internal locus of control where s/he will CHOOSE to not steal even though s/he really, really, REALLY wants to. (self-control, impulse control, etc…) This takes practice so know there will be hiccups.
  3. Avoid shaming statements. Shame is extremely difficult for children as it can become deeply ingrained. Guilt sounds like “Hi, I’m Suzie and I made a mistake.”  Shame sounds like “Hi, I’m Suzie and I think I’m a mistake.”  You can avoid shaming statements such as “What do you think Jesus thinks of stealing?” (kids hear: Even Jesus thinks you’re a hot mess.) “I can’t believe you stole again – when are you going to learn?” (kids hear: You’re so stupid) “I’m really sad that you chose to steal” (kids hear: Suzie – you’re to blame for me being sad…)

Here is an example of my “perfect world” scenario.

  • Mom:  Suzie, remember when you took John’s marble yesterday? I want to let you know that John’s marbles aren’t for taking. (Blogger note: I know, I know… it sounds totally weird but I promise you that kids get it! It is super simple for kids to understand.)
  • Suzie: Ok, sorry.
  • M: I don’t know what else you could do when you want to take John’s marble.
  • S: I could cut off my hands!
  • M: But hands aren’t for cutting off. I don’t know if you have other ideas.
  • S: I could put my hands in my pocket so I won’t take it.
  • M: You’ve got an idea. You know just how to work hard to not take things that aren’t yours. You’ve got ideas about how to do that.
  • S: I could come tell you that I want to take it and you could tell me NO.
  • M: You’ve got more ideas about how to stop taking things that aren’t yours. You know just how to stop yourself from taking things that aren’t yours.

Before you write me off as a total Nut Job, let me explain my rationale behind these statements:

  1. The wording of the Mom above is quite specific. It states the truth: John’s marbles aren’t for taking. This is simple for kids to get.
  2. Also, note that Mom isn’t questioning Suzie with “Can you think of other things you could do instead of taking Suzie’s marbles?” or “Why did you take the marble?” The reason I do not ask questions is I want the child engaged – not on the defensive. When I say “I don’t know what else you could do…” the child takes a “step” toward me to help me figure it out. We become a team to tackle this problem.
  3. When the child says something fantastical “I could cut off my hands!” you respond logically: “Hands aren’t for cutting off” which is, again, simple to understand.
  4. When the child comes up with legitimate suggestions, the Mom should move to the “instillation phrase” with: “You know just how to…” This allows the child to believe: Hey! I got this! If you use praise such as “What a smart girl! You have an awesome idea!” then the motivator quickly becomes extrinsic and she may want to please the parent for praise alone. The goal is for the child to CHOOSE not to steal because “things aren’t for stealing” and not so that she will get an emotional reward.

Here is an example of a “not so perfect world” scenario:

  • Mom: Sam, I see you just put that toy car in your pocket. That toy car isn’t for taking.
  • Sam: No I didn’t.
  • M: You want me to believe that you didn’t put the car in your pocket, but the car isn’t for taking.
  • S: It’s not in my pocket.
  • M: You really want that car and don’t want to take it out of your pocket. But the car is not for taking. The car is for leaving on the shelf.
  • S: Ok. I’ll put it back on the shelf.
  • M: You know just where the car belongs.

The urge to rip the car out of his pocket to prove he lied… or to explain between truth/lies, stealing, defiance, etc… will be extremely strong. But remember: the main thing is that he eventually overcome his lack of self-control and “do the right thing”. Let him grow in this area of self-control – deeper conversations about lying will come later. Allow him to repair what he broke! There is a lot of healing in this without a lot of dialogue.

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