My Child’s a Thief
Dear Dr. T.,
I would never believe that this could happen to me. My 10-year-old daughter has been caught stealing money at school.
Some background: We are a typical, large family in the community. We are very careful in matters of character, and I would never expect such outrageous behavior. In fact, we have never had any problems with this child before. She is our middle child, quiet and well-mannered. Though she obviously understands that stealing is wrong, when we tried to talk to her about it, she looked down, hung her head, and refused to say a word.
What punishment do you suggest to make sure that this never happens again?
Though your question seems to focus on the punishment issue, I would like to address the more important question: Why would your daughter steal? And, how do you get her to stop?
As always, before we can address a problem, we need to understand it. Why do children steal?
Very young children – until the age of six or so – do not steal; rather, they have a poor concept of ownership and sharing and so they simply take things. By elementary school age, though, children do understand rules, regulations, and the laws of possession. Sometimes, however, the child has difficulty with self-control, and though he knows stealing is wrong, he may impulsively act on his urges. I would imagine that none of the above apply to your daughter, because her behavior has been exemplary until now.
Probably the most common reason children steal is deprivation: They feel an emotional void in their lives. A child who does not have his emotional needs met (love, attention, respect, listening, validation) feels empty inside. He may take money or things in an attempt to fill himself up. He may even feel that stealing is only fair or makes things even; i.e., “I don’t get what I need, so I will just take what I can.” Or, “Nobody cares about me, so I don’t care about them.” This is usually an unconscious thought process, one that you could not get your child to articulate, even were she open to talking.
Many children do not get the attention that they need, and thus feel a lack of love and disinterest on the part of their parents. In your case, you may feel that your daughter does get enough attention, but how your child perceives your attention is more important than the attention she actually receives. So, is it possible that this daughter just fell through the cracks? The child who is “quiet and well-mannered” is easy to overlook, and you may have had little indication that your daughter was hurting. Though your daughter did not communicate any distress to you, perhaps her stealing is a way to gratify her needs and express discontent.
It is also conceivable that the stealing is quite practical on your daughter’s part. Perhaps she has asked for money for some particular item, and you have refused her. Though your motivation may be instructive – i.e. “It’s okay to say, ‘No,’ sometimes,” or “She doesn’t need it.” – she may feel that she just must have the item. Or, maybe there is some nosh habit that you just will not entertain, despite her begging. This stealing represents another type of deprivation – for tangible objects. It is a real art to figure out the line between need and indulgence.
My point here is that it is critical to understand your daughter’s motivation so that you can best deal with the issue. You want to take different approaches with the child who lacks control and the child who feels unloved.
Here are some specific suggestions for a child who steals.
- Stay calm. Don’t overreact. Stealing does not mean that you have failed as a parent or that your child is going to jail. It is an opportunity both to teach your child and to address her underlying needs.
- Do not ask for explanations; just state that stealing is wrong. Had your daughter been able to express her feelings, she would have done so, and perhaps would not have had the need to steal. Further discussion often becomes browbeating (“Why? Tell me why!”). Your daughter does not feel good about this, as evidenced by her reaction.
- Do not state or imply that your daughter is bad, a thief, a disappointment, etc. The behavior is wrong, but not your child. The last thing you want or need is a self-fulfilling prophesy. (Think she’s a thief, she becomes a thief.)
- Guide your child to making amends. Your forgiveness and her promise to repent are just not enough here. Your daughter needs to “fix it.”
- Once the incident is resolved, let it go. Do not bring it up to your child again.
- Consider the reasons your daughter stole and work towards addressing the issues and needs.
- Avoid punishment, which only breeds resentment and the determination to never be caught again. Your daughter will learn far more from the logical consequence of having to make amends.
Model honesty in your words and deeds. Chinuch is not for the short-term, but for the long run. The best way to raise an honest child is for you to be an honest person. And that includes the most minor of behaviors – like benefitting from the undercharging of a non-Jew, avoiding taxes, etc. Your child cannot differentiate between major (jail, chillul Hashem offenses) and “minor” misdeeds.
In addition, do not whitewash or excuse dishonest behavior in others by claiming, “They are good people,” or “We don’t know the whole situation.” The contemporary world has so much dishonesty that is glossed over and accepted that children today may see stealing as minor and not as one of the aseres hadibros.
A final thought – behaviorists have a maxim: “All behavior is communication.” By working at understanding what your daughter’s behavior is telling you, you have a wonderful opportunity to learn more about your child and teach her right from wrong. If, however, despite your best effort, this behavior persists, you may want to consider consulting a professional who specializes in children and their issues.
The Book Nook: In Living and Parenting, Rabbi Yakov Horowitz writes with uncompromising clarity and directness about the challenges and rewards of contemporary parenting. A veteran mechanech, Rabbi Horowitz provides reasoned and reasonable advice to issues from adapting traditional methods to today’s challenges to solutions for at-risk teens.
Sara Teichman, Psy D. is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles and Clinical Director of ETTA, L.A.’s largest Jewish agency for adults with special needs. To submit a question or comment, email DrT@jewishhomela.com