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hand grabbing an item from someone else's purse

Your child steals something: How do you feel? Shocked? Betrayed? Embarrassed? All of the above?

How about defending yourself to anyone who will listen: "But we've had family home evenings about that!"

Many children steal something at some point - it's not as uncommon as you may think. Parenting experts have suggested effective ways to handle stealing.

"Innocent" Stealing

Children, young children especially, do not see stealing as a moral choice. For many children stealing may be a function of circumstance: They want an object they feel they cannot get any other way, and they simply do not think things through.   
Stealing can become part of a child's larger understanding of honesty. Realizing this can help guide us as we respond to and teach our child.

girl looking at clothes rack

"Children, young children especially, do not see stealing as a moral choice."

Less Innocent Stealing

The older a child gets, the more "moral" the choice to steal becomes. It may also become more difficult for parents to confront an older child about stealing. Hurt, resistance, or embarrassment might cause us to avoid talking to the child, hoping the problem will go away on its own. However, confronting stealing as soon we notice it is our best chance for teaching our child.   
The interventions may be easier than you think. There are several basic rules that apply to children of all ages when a parent must handle stealing.

To the relief of many of us, there's no need to hold a lecture series on stealing when a child steals. Dr. Glenn Latham urges us to avoid getting caught up in moralizing over right and wrong when a child steals something. Most of the time we, just need to make our expectations known: for example, "I expect you to pay for things you take."

girl hugging woman

Richard C. Edgley shared a story about the simple but effective way his father taught him not to steal. In his youth, after working the summer at a resort, Bishop Edgley made the 185-mile trip home in an old, worn-out car. In the backseat he'd put three towels from the lodge where he'd worked. In his view the towels were not something he'd stolen, but rather "a symbol of a full summer's work at a luxury hotel, a rite of passage" (73).

However, his father could see things from a different perspective, which he shared with his son in a way that lasted a lifetime. Without moralizing or preaching, but making his expectations clear, he merely said with a disappointed look, "I expected more of you" (72). Bishop Edgley made the long trip back to the hotel to return the towels.

Our child probably doesn't see stealing for the moral error that it is. If we're confronted with this behavior we do not need to panic. Like Bishop Edgley's father, we can teach our child honesty through our example and our expectations.


Cline, Foster, and Jim Fay. Parenting with Love and Logic. Colorado Springs, CO: Pinion Press, 2006.   
Edgley, Richard C. "Three Towels and a 25-Cent Newspaper." Ensign November (2006): 72-74.   
Latham, Glenn I. The Power of Positive Parenting: A Wonderful Way to Raise Children. Logan, UT: P&T Ink, 1994.   
Young, Richard K., Sharon Black, Michelle Marchant, Katherine J. Mitchem, and Richard P. West. "A Teaching Approach to Discipline: An Alternative to Punishment." Marriage & Families, August (2000): 9-15.