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  • Writer's picturemonettevanlith

How to respond to your child stealing?

A client recently asked how to respond to her child taking money from her wallet without permission.

In general I’m reluctant to call this stealing as the notion of what is yours and what is mine in a parent-child or siblings relationship remains fluid for some time (siblings often “borrow” each others clothes in a moment of need and although irritating, especially when later found at the bottom of a dirty laundry pile, it is usually not seen as stealing). In general though, as of age five a child can distinguish themselves from others and can begin to recognize what belongs to them and what doesn’t. Of course we need to teach our children that taking something that doesn’t belong to us without asking is not permitted and that certainly in society at large it is against the law and punishable. No matter what the reason, stealing is simply wrong because it hurts others. Explaining the serious consequences when caught stealing is an important conversation to have as well.  

Most of the time, when it comes to children and stealing, there are underlying reasons that once understood, can be addressed. Some of those reasons might be a lack of self-control, a need for attention, peer pressure, low self-esteem. While amends have to be made in each particular case, it can be a good time to start a deeper and ongoing conversation on what is going on in the child’s life, while also cultivating the ability in our children to distinguish right from wrong.  

In addition we can use this opportunity to have a broader conversation still, one that focuses on exploring the human qualities and behaviors that are the basis of relationships in a society. What is it that makes a group of strangers live side by side in a building or on a street and feel at ease with each other? What are the rules of trust and empathy that govern a community or neighborhood? What would happen if people were to just take whatever they wanted from others? How does it feel to trust someone? What are our shared values and why is it important to live by them?


What are some of the conversations you’ve had with your children about stealing? Did you find there were some underlying reasons that helped you understand the behavior? At what point did you feel your child could fully understand the reasons why we have rules and laws that help a society thrive?

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