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Debra Matell Cohen, Ed.D.

John Winthrop Wright Director of Ethical Education


You’ve just learned your child is stealing. It’s likely a flood of thoughts and emotions are going through your head: “What did I do wrong?” “Am I a bad parent?” “What happens next?”  “Is my child destined for a life of crime?” 

Based on information culled from researchers and experts, here are five steps to take when you find out that your child has stolen something:

1. Do not get emotional. You and your child can both handle this situation better if you hold your emotions in check. I know it’s not going to be easy, but you have to put on your proverbial oxygen mask first. You can’t help your child if your emotions are controlling you.  

2. Ask your child why. First, find out what exactly happened, the circumstances involved.  Second, without berating or scaring your child, find out what motivated her to steal. Your goal should be to find out why your child decided to steal. Ask open-ended questions. Don’t start to lecture.  Hear them out.

3. Explain why stealing is wrong. As young as age 5, children can understand why stealing hurts others and by age 9 children can explain why stealing is wrong. But this is a moment for you to talk to your child about why stealing is wrong. I encourage you to talk about your own values and beliefs. 

4. Discuss consequences, including restitution. Children of all ages need to understand that behaviors have consequences. For example, you may determine that your child needs to return the item and apologize (to an individual or a store manager).  You may also decide to punish your child as a way to show that behaviors have consequences and that she needs to take responsibility for her actions. You may also want to point out that stealing is a crime that could lead to more serious consequences.

5. Talk about trust. Trust is a cornerstone of any parent-child relationship. When trust is violated, it’s natural for parent and child to feel hurt, disappointed, and upset. Experts suggest telling your child she has lost your trust is a powerful moment, so be calm when you do so. Of course, you also need to discuss how she can earn back your trust.

According to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, 1 in 11 Americans have shoplifted and more than 30% of adolescents who have been caught shoplifting say it’s difficult for them to stop. This research reinforces why it’s critically important for you to address stealing behaviors as soon as you learn that you child has stolen something.  

Communication is the key. You can develop trust by truly listening to your child. Even when he protests that he doesn’t want to talk or listen to your advice, experts confirm that many teens seek out parents’ input for issues and problems because they feel parents are a reliable resource. You want to establish your home as a “safe place” where your child can speak to you about what’s happening in his life. 

Of course, there may be a time when you need outside help. If you’re reading this article because your child is repeatedly stealing, I encourage you to talk to your family doctor, therapist, school counselor or your religious leaders. There are also support groups that can help, such as the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP) or Cleptomaniacs and Shoplifters Anonymous (CASA). 

I also encourage you to read the first part of this series, Why Do Kids Steal? where I explain the reasons why kids steal at different ages of their development. Finally, I know if you are reading this article you care deeply about raising your child to be honest and ethical. Please never forget that the most important gift a parent can ever give to a child is the tools for the young person to build the own moral compass that will guide them no matter where they go or what they do in life.

Read the previous part of this series, Why Do Kids Lie? and sign up to receive the “Ethics in Action” blog and webinar series in your Inbox. Be sure to subscribe to receive Parts 3-5 in the Why Do Kids Steal? series:

Part 3: What Teachers Can Do When Their Students are Stealing
Part 4: What Workplace Leaders Can Do When Their Employees are Stealing
Part 5: Webinar: An Interview with an Expert on Why People Steal

Following this part of our series, we will also explore Why Do Kids Cheat?


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