Small children engage in stealing for at least two reasons.
First, everything ‘belongs’ to a two-or three-year-old until someone tells her differently. Thus if she sees a toy in a toy shop, it’s hers - until she learns such things belong to others. Learning this takes time.
If you resort to traumatic punishment, it will only drive the behaviour underground, only to resurface later in less acceptable ways. Gentle explanations on how to respect possessions, coupled with firm limits, are more effective than punishment.
A more subtle reason for stealing is the desire to identify with others. As the intense desire of a pre-school child to identify with her parents, her siblings, or her schoolmates increases, she may take important things from them.
In her own thinking, she will believe that having a possession of the other person’s amounts to being like the other person.
The first instance of stealing is exploratory and acquisitive rather than a sign of being ‘bad.’ If you explode, you’re likely to generate fear and repeat stealing in the child.
Of course, it frightens a parent when a small child steals, but if you can understand the universality of stealing for children and the motives behind it, you can avoid overreacting and causing this behaviour to become fixed as a future pattern.
A parent’s goal is to use each episode as an opportunity for teaching, but a child will only be ready to learn if she is not overwhelmed by her guilt. Helping a child understand her reasons for taking others’ possessions leaves her available to hear you when you discuss others’ rights.
Learning to respect others’ possessions and territory is a long-term goal. Handled with sensitivity, each episode of stealing can lead in that direction.
What to do
*Stay calm: To curb more stealing, don’t make a huge scene. This will only frighten the child. Try not to label her a thief as you talk to her, and try not to harp on the incident afterward.
It is advisable not to confront the child by asking her whether she stole; this may just force her to lie. Simply make clear that you know where the object came from, ask her to produce it if necessary, and say, “You know you can’t take something that isn’t yours.”
Then, help her return the object to its owner, apologise and pay for it if necessary. Let the child work off the cost by doing some house chores. Be consistent about all this each time.
*Be patient: Preventing stealing involves patient teaching-over and over. Show her how to ask for what she wants. Have simple rules about sharing with others, such as, “You don’t take another child’s toy without asking her and offering her one of yours.” Explain the concept of borrowing and returning a toy.
“You may ask whether you can play with it. If they say no, that’s it. If they say yes, you must offer to return it.
It’s also important to explain why such rules are necessary - “in order to protect others’ toys the way you want to protect yours.”
*Understand why: A parent’s goal is not to punish but to teach her about others’ possessions and about curbing her own wishes for those possessions. Try to understand why she did it, and help her understand herself. Ask her how she plans to handle it, to give part of the responsibility of limits to her. If she can come up with a satisfactory solution, give her credit. Finally, and most important, when she succeeds, be sure to let her know you are proud of her.
*Ask for help: If stealing continues, look for possible underlying reasons. Is the child guilty and frightened and reacting by a sort of repetition-compulsion? Is she so insecure that she needs others’ possessions to make her feel like a whole person? Do others already disapprove of her and label her? Does she feel - perhaps without realising it - that she is missing something deeply important, for which stealing others’ belongings is a misguided compensation? If she repeats her acts of stealing, she may be asking you for therapy.