Correcting Sticky Fingers

Stopping stick fingersIt has got to be one of the most embarrassing scenes – your otherwise angelic and sweet toddler walking out of a store or (perhaps worse) a friend’s home with a pocketful of stolen loot. Once the cardinal sin has been discovered by the parents, parents are shocked to admit that their baby is a thief and they feel that they have failed as parents and they have failed their children.

If you are dealing with a case of sticky fingers – relax, this is a normal phase and even though the behaviour must be nipped in the bud, it is not the end of the world and in fact, stealing is a rather common behaviour in kids who have not quite developed the sense of right and wrong or who do not quite have self-control in the bag.

Although stealing is a relatively common phenomenon among kids, a lot of parents are too ashamed to mention their child’s nasty habit and prefer to deal with it behind closed doors (or worse, prefer not to deal with it at all).  A child aged 3 or 4 (or even 5), will spot an item on a shelf or see a tempting toy at a playmate’s home and will (usually with little thought) slip it into their pocket or simply carry it out of the door. A child of this age is not yet aware that stealing is wrong – they are thinking only of their immediate needs, with little or no thought about the consequences.

The fact is that children who are five years and younger has no concept of ownership. They do not feel that it is wrong to take things off other’s hands. Children in older age groups (5 +) know the difference between right and wrong and they are more than aware that stealing is wrong but they still nick sweets, toys, etc. this is an indication that they are unable to exercise self-control. Pre-teens and teens may steal for other reasons; peer-pressure is usually one of the biggest factors that lead kids in this age group to steal. They want to impress friends and they feel that doing something as bold as stealing will help them to become an accepted member in a group or clique. Children may also be stealing as a means to gain the attention of their parents, or they could be stealing to meet a need – if they feel that a new pair of designer shoes or a new CD will help them fit into a clique at school, they are willing to take the risk.


Warning signs

Pre-schoolers who take toys or sweets which don’t belong to them do not need to be labelled as problem children and for the most part, after their parents have explained right from wrong, they will cease stealing. Parents who are dealing with older children who steal will need to be on the lookout for other warning signs which could be an indication that the child is displaying signs of serious behavioural problems. These warning signs include constant stealing, showing no remorse for their actions, exhibiting other problems – like fighting at school, lying, etc. Parents should also look at the whole picture and find out if the child is a victim of a school bully, or if their child is unhappy – stealing may be the child’s only means to gain attention. It is important for parents to get to the root cause of the child’s behaviour to determine if there are any underlying reasons.


How to deal with stealing

When trying to teach a toddler the difference between right or wrong, parents will need to think carefully before they take actions. No matter how old the child is, they need to be taught that stealing is not acceptable.

  • Return all stolen goods. It may be uncomfortable walking into a shop or a friend’s home and presenting the stolen booty to the owner, but it must be done. Parents must accompany their children. There is no need to humiliate or shout at the child, but they must be made aware of the fact that stealing is not acceptable. Never allow a child to keep the loot!
  • Once the goods have been returned, parents will need to explain as best as possible why stealing is wrong, and helping the child to feel how others feel when their toys or sweets, etc. are taken away, will help kids to feel remorse for their actions.
  • Parents can explain the difference between borrowing and stealing and how the child can ask, if they want to use something, or bring a toy home!
  • Never ignore stealing or put it down as a once-off thing that will go away. Parents must address the problem (if not, a lesson will not be learnt and the child will take longer to realise that their behaviour is incorrect).
  • Practice what you preach! Children tend to mimic the behaviour of their parents and even though you may think that you are a role-model citizen, you may have kept something that was not yours (it could be as simple as not returning a friend’s salad bowl)! Parents need to set a good example for their kids, by being honest and returning items that have been borrowed.
  • If a child steals continually, it may be necessary for parents to consult a behavioural specialist who will help them to get to the bottom of the problem.

As parents, we owe it to our children to take immediate action to rectify all unacceptable behaviour, whether the behaviour is stealing, lying, bullying, etc. Our children will one day become adults in a world that frowns on stealing (and rightly so) and has zero tolerance for the conduct. Parents who choose to ignore the problem in childhood are doing their children a disservice, who will later in life need to take responsibility for their actions. Parents who are proactive and who address the problem head on (no matter how embarrassing or how shocking it may be) are helping to mould their children and giving them the necessary tools that are essential to cope in the real world.


 – Kathy Baron


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