Articles and Topics
My 5-year-old shoplifts, even though he knows stealing is wrong.
Q: My 5-year-old son shoplifts. I have caught him on four different occasions, and have always had him return the items, apologize to store staff, and promise he won't do it again. He knows stealing is wrong, but he continues. He is very bright and has always been willful and stubborn, often refusing to take responsibility for his actions and blaming bad consequences on others. How do we deal with this? We punish him with time-out and extra chores, but we haven't seemed to have made an impact on the shoplifting.
A: You are showing your own integrity in mentioning your child’s problem in a question to us, and I am confident your attitude and behaviour will help remedy the situation. Sometimes behaviour like shoplifting is an early indicator of more serious anti-social behaviour. But, if so, it is usually associated with other indicators (like bullying, chronic lying, hurting animals, etc.). From what you write, it sounds as though your son’s anti-social behaviour is pretty much limited to this one area (although you do say that he refuses to take responsibility for his actions and tends to blame others). As long as it is restricted, I would deal with it by itself and try not to think of it as signifying a broader and more serious pattern.

But now what do you do? I always suggest starting with a fairly simple and hopefully preventive approach: don’t take him with you into any store. If he complains, remind him that you are doing this for his own good until he learns the difference between his things and things that don’t belong to him. When you come right down to it, a toy store can be an overwhelmingly tempting experience for a young child. They have so many things, and you want only one! What can be the harm . . .? So don’t tempt him. If you have to take him with you into a store, make certain that he doesn’t have with him any sort of backpack or satchel into which an item could be stuffed.

Second, think of some reasonable way for him to experience the consequences of his behaviour. Even if he took the item back, check the price and have him give up something of equal value. If he has any concept of monetary value, either withhold or take from a piggy bank enough money to cover the cost of the item.

If you see this sort of behaviour spreading into other areas of his life, talk to his pediatrician about it and possibly ask for a referral to a child guidance centre.