You notice that some cash seems to be missing from your purse or wallet. You do have occasional domestic help at home, but you trust her almost as much as your spouse. Your child has never lied to you before, but lately s/he has come home with dubious toys or treats.
"Someone left them on the school bus." "A friend gave them to me." "I bought them with money I found on the sidewalk."
The evidence is only circumstantial, but you can't push away the thought that your child may be stealing.
How should you handle this delicate situation? How can you tell for sure if your child is the culprit? If your child is stealing, why is s/he doing this? How can you make sure that this petty theft does not develop into grand larceny in the future?
WHAT NOT TO DO
Don't panic. Career criminals almost never began their lives of crime by stealing from their parents. If, in fact, your child is stealing money from you, it is not at all a precursor of later criminal activity. The overwhelming majority of thieves and burglars are drawn into lives of crime in order to support their drug addictions. They do not start out by stealing from their parents and then "graduate" to breaking into homes or holding up liquor stores.
If your child is taking money from you or shoplifting candy, it is definitely cause for concern. It is not, however, a catastrophe of monumental proportions.
The next most important thing to avoid is accusing your child of stealing unless you have absolute proof. Circumstantial evidence allows you to suspect your child. ("Did you take the two dollars that were on the kitchen table?") But you should never accuse your child ("You took the money, didn't you?!") without concrete evidence or an eye witness.
If your child is, in fact, innocent of the crime and you accuse him/her of stealing, the damage you cause will take a long time to repair. Your child will feel rejected and the breach of trust will cut both ways. Your child will be convinced you do not trust him/her and s/he will, in turn, feel distrust towards you.
WHY CHILDREN STEAL
Children do not take money from those in their immediate social circle because they are short on cash, because they disrespect the rights of others or because they are unable to tell right from wrong. They do not even steal in order to satisfy uncontrollable appetites or desires, although they may use the money to purchase food, fun or favors.
Why, then, do children steal? In the vast majority of cases, children steal as a way of acting out their feelings of emotional deprivation at home. It is their way of demonstrating that they need more attention, nurturing or affection from their parents.
Consider David, for example, David's father was a well-respected lawyer. David's family lived a comfortable lifestyle, which included an ample weekly monetary allowance for David and his siblings. At 12 years old, David had all the material possessions he could want and certainly as much as his seventh grade classmates.
When David was caught by his teacher stealing money from the class tzedaka box, everyone was baffled. Upon the recommendation of David's pediatrician, his parents brought David to me for an evaluation.
David had been doing well in school both academically and socially. While David's parents thought David had "everything a child could want," they overlooked the one thing that mattered most to David: his father's time and attention. The father's workaholic schedule did not allow for even minimal father-son interaction, which David craved intensely. And when this was finally corrected, there were no further incidents of stealing.
WHAT PARENTS CAN DO
In order to deal responsibly and successfully with your child's stealing, you need to take all of the following steps:
1. Make sure your child has spending money. All children need to have some discretionary funds at their disposal. It need not be a fortune. But if all the other kids in the class have money of their own and only your child is penniless, it makes it much harder for him/her to control the impulse to pick your pocket.
2. Do not leave cash around the house in full view or in easily accessible areas. You do not need to install a safe at home. But you should also not tempt your children to steal. Hiding your purse or wallet may be uncomfortable for you. It may be necessary, however, if you have a child at home who has already helped him/herself to your money.
3. Sit down with your spouse and conduct an honest inventory of the attention you give to the child you suspect of stealing money. Remember, children spell the word "love" this way: t-i-m-e.
Children spell the word "love" this way: t-i-m-e.
Add up all the time you spend with this child and then deduct the time doing homework together, carpooling, shopping, running to doctors' and dentists' appointments, tutoring and other private lessons. What are you left with? If the answer is "nothing," then you may not be spending enough quality time with this particular child who may be feeling left out, ignored or even rejected.
Try setting aside 20-30 minutes, once a week, during which you will simply hang out with this child. Maybe you will play a game, go for a walk, look at family photo albums or just schmooze about his/her day.
If that does not lead to an improvement in the situation, then it may be necessary to take your child for a professional evaluation with a child specialist. But in nine cases out of ten, giving some private, quality time is all that is needed to keep your child's hands out of your pockets. It worked for David's parents. And it can work for you, too.