Skip to main content


What to do:

Self-Talk. Say to yourself, "My young child thinks that everything in the world belongs to her. She doesn't know that taking something that is not hers is breaking a law. I can deal with this by teaching her how to get what she wants without stealing."

Empathy. Tell yourself, "I understand that my child is tempted to take all the things she wants from the grocery store or her friends' houses. I wish that I could, too! But I know that stealing is wrong. She won't know unless I teach her!"

Teach. Tell yourself, "My job is to show or explain to my child how to get what she wants by asking politely and by not stealing, and to accept that she can't always have everything she wants. She needs to learn the rules about borrowing things from family and friends, too."

Explain the Difference between Borrowing and Stealing. When a child is old enough to understand the words, make sure you teach her the difference between borrowing and stealing. Stealing is taking something without permission; borrowing is asking for and getting permission before taking something, and then giving it back when asked to.

Beware of Legal Consequences for Stealing. Depending on local laws, some children as young as 5 years of age have been threatened with arrest by store owners when they steal something. Certainly, teens are generally arrested when they steal. No matter what the local ordinances are, teach your child to pay for things he wants and make sure he doesn't have things that don't belong to him or that you know he hasn't paid for.

Teach Your Child to Use Empathy. In a kind voice, ask your child how he would feel if someone took something that belonged to him and didn't ask if he could borrow it? Encourage him to talk about his feelings. Explain that taking something that doesn't belong to you or that you didn't pay for is stealing...and that stealing is against the law.

Give An Example of Borrowing. If your child wants to borrow something, tell him that means he will ask to borrow it. If the person says "Yes", then your child will have it for a little while, take good care of it, and then return it to the person who owns it. For example, he may ask to borrow his grandpa's book about horses. When his grandpa says "Yes", after he reads it, he will return it to his grandpa.

Make a "Never-have-anything-that-doesn't-belong-to-you" Rule. If you think your child does not know not to steal, inspect his backpack, and pockets of pants and jackets before school and again after school. Any new object must be accounted for by asking where it came from and then checking out the story. For example, if your child has an electronic device that you think is not his, ask him, "Where did this tablet come from?". If your child says that his friend gave it to him, contact the child who was supposed to have gifted it to your child to make sure it was indeed a gift. If it was not, make sure that your child returns the stolen item to his friend and apologizes for taking it.

Practice the Rule of "Asking Before Taking". At a neutral time-not when your child is in a hurry to go to school or is going to bed, for example-teach the rule of asking for what he wants. Say, "The rule is, when you want to have something, this is the way to ask: 'May I please have a drink? May I please play with the markers?" When you hear your child asking for something by following the rule, say, "Good job following the rule. I am glad you said 'please' and asked so politely if you could have a drink." Practice this rule each day when your child wants something at home, so he gets in the habit of using those words everywhere he goes.

Use Grandma's Rule to Get What You Want Honestly. Say, "I know that you want that new book. When you have saved the money you get from raking leaves, then you can decide if you want to buy the book with part of the money." Teaching your child to be able to cope with waiting to get what he wants and to work for what he wants are two important lessons she will benefit from learning when young.

Talk about Waiting to Buy Something. Help your child understand that it is not always possible to have what you want when you want it. Doing so will help her understand that you just don't steal something if you cannot pay for it. Tell her, "I want a new dress for the holiday party, but I know that it is not in my budget to get a new dress right now. When I save more money, I will be able to buy a dress in a few months." Sharing your decision-making helps your child understand that she is not alone-everyone wants things but has to wait sometimes to get them. Stealing is not the answer!

What not to do:

Don't Be a Historian. Don't remind your child about a stealing incident. Bringing up the past will only remind her of wrong behavior and won't teach her how to avoid the mistake in the future.

Don't Label Your Child. Don't call your child a thief because she will eventually believe that she is a thief and behave according to how she's labeled.

Don't Ask Your Child Whether She's Stolen Something. Asking only encourages lying. She'll say to herself, "I know Mommy will be mad. Why not lie so she won't be mad at me?" Instead of asking if something was stolen, ask where it came from or how she came to have it.

Don't Hesitate to Search Your Child. If you suspect that your young child (under 5 years of age) has stolen something from the neighbor's house, check it out by asking her to tell you the truth about how she got the item that you suspect she stole. If you discover that she did steal, enforce the consequences. For example, say, "I'm sorry you took something that didn't belong to you. Now you must pay for it by giving up one of your belongings and returning what you stole." Realize that your child has not yet learned the lesson about not taking something that doesn't belong to her. She needs more practice in the rule of "asking before taking", as described in "What to Do".

The authors and Raised with Love and Limits Foundation disclaim responsibility for any harmful consequences, loss, injury or damage associated with the use and application of information or advice contained in these prescriptions and on this website. These protocols are clinical guidelines that must be used in conjunction with critical thinking and critical judgment.