My Daughter, the Shoplifter

When children engage in petty theft, are they beginning a life of crime or just engaged in a naughty prank? Here's what to do when your child steals.

What To Do When Your Child Steals

Seven-year-old Sophie was delighted when her family took a vacation in the Caribbean. She relished exploring the resort on her own. Often, she and her new friend, Katie, visited the gift shop.

When Sophie’s mother was packing, she discovered in her daughter’s drawer three rhinestone rings—just like the ones in the gift shop. Confronted by the evidence, Sophie confessed that she and Katie had stolen them.

Sticky Fingers

Most of us can recall taking something that didn’t belong to us as children: a cousin’s Tinker toy, a candy bar from the variety store. When our crimes were discovered, punishment was swift. Often, we were forced to return to the scene of the crime and fess up.

Sophie’s story was a little more complicated—or was it? She’d spent her first three years in a Russian orphanage. “Sophie had nothing of her own when she was a baby,” her mother explained. “When she came to us, she often hoarded snacks in a little basket hidden under the bed.”

Those behaviors stopped as Sophie adjusted to her new life. But now her mother wondered whether the stolen rings indicated something serious or just a childhood prank.

The Adoption Twist

Adoptive parents seem always to have an extra antenna up. They often wonder, Is this normal or does it indicate a problem related to adoption?

“If your child steals,” write Judith Schaffer and Christina Lindstrom in How to Raise an Adopted Child, “it may be because he has not had things of his own and needs to learn the difference between his property and others. Or he may be testing you: Will you love me even when I’m bad?”

Look for Patterns

Ask yourself, “does the child take things regularly, is she secretive and rebellious?” If so, stealing may indicate larger problems. If an an adolescent steals, the offense should be taken seriously.

But for children of six to eight, such behavior is generally innocent. These youngsters are just learning that they can’t have everything they want.

In the case of Sophie and Katie, freedom to roam merged with the temptation of shiny baubles. They were made bold, as a pair, to do something neither would do alone. A stern lecture followed by an apology to the shopkeeper taught the girls a lesson. They spent the last night of vacation sadder but wiser, alone in their rooms.

Let the Punishment Fit the Child

While children shouldn’t be allowed to get away with stealing, don’t overreact. Make clear that stealing is not acceptable in your family. For a shy child, public shaming—returning stolen items to the owner—may be too traumatic. Instead, parents may ask the child to write an apology to be given to the shopkeeper.



Copyright © 1999-2024 Adoptive Families Magazine®. All rights reserved. For personal use only. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

More articles like this