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My Child, the Thief

My Child, the Thief

Practical advice for parents of children who steal.


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?


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.


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.


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.

December 10, 2005

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Visitor Comments: 33

(31) Claudio Meneses, December 6, 2013 12:11 PM

10 years old girl

My ten years old girl is taking things from her friends without consent. I don't know what to do. Please help!

(30) Anonymous, January 13, 2013 1:05 AM

out of my mind

my 22 year son was arrested for stealing from his job. he was charged with grand theft and burglary felonies. this will be permanent on his record and will keep him from finding work in the future. as a single mother ive depended heavily on my grandmother to help me raise him. i admit, i wasnt around enough when he was a boy. his father and i are divorsed. he is not a very good influence and not around much either. ive always considered that a good thing. he also has a history of stealing from his jobs. growing up, ive caught my son stealing from stores, his friends, his grandparents, and me. ive talked, punished, forgiven over and over again. like the above commentator, he rejects any suggestion to spend time with me. he lives with me completely free. he doesnt contibrute to my household expenses at all. he takes no initiative to improve himself. he goes to school but that's because ive enrolled him and paid for his classes and materials. he smokes in bed. for the past three years my partner and i have been begging him not do it. his mattress is full of cigarette burns. a month ago i woke up with a fire in the bathroom trash can that he refuses to admit any involvement in. i told him that the next time he smoked in his bed, hed have to move out. i have since found him doing it 3 more times. this morning i took him to my grandmother's house. hes no longer welcomed in my house. i now cant live with myself for throwing him out, but i fear my forgiveness of this obvious character weakness has gone on too long. he is not learning from his mistakes. ive considered counceling but i just cant afford it. im at a complete loss.

(29) Kristen, December 4, 2012 3:38 PM

in response

My son has just turned 18, and has had what someone refered to as the magpie sindrom since a very young child. He received loads of attention from me but not from his father. Someone here said that that behavior wont turn a child into a theif later on but I say it could. My son has been charged so many times for theft. He now has traded a behaviour he learned as a child into a way to get drugs. It becomes too easy for them if they constantly get away with it. My son has recieved much discipline over stealing and I have seeked advise for him and used it from professionals. He will go to jail, THat I am sure. so tread carefully and please dont ignore.

(28) Anonymous, April 27, 2012 8:00 AM

what if the culprit is not my own child but my husbands niece how will i handle it, her mother is working from another country and the father is doing nothing about it, my husband already talked with her about it but i think words are not enough since she consistently denies it. what can i do?

(27) Child, September 1, 2011 3:41 AM


I know that I used to steal, and i can say with certainty that though I had many things others did not, I felt entitled to steal money (about 100$ over 3 years) in iPod purchases, not because my parents dont love me, but because I had no way to access it myself. I had plenty of allowance money, but no way to spend it. the only way to get something was to steal. I came to this site because I suspect my younger brother (14) of stealing my iTouch, and wanted to know why. He has some kind of Magpie syndrome, and has stolen my iPod several times, shoplifted candy about seven times, searched my room for things regularly, and I often find my things lying around his room. He has stolen Blackberries, an iPhone, an iPad and a charger from my father (he got them back) my dads pen-knifes, swiss-army knives, and even necklaces from other peoples house. he has even stolen a knife from his scoutmaster. I would like to be close to my brother, but Im afraid all he does is take things for granted. He doesnt do things for anyone else, and talks in a monotone. He is quick to insult others or even laugh at people (he doesnt laugh much) when confronted or asked to take his ADD meds or even go to bed when its ELEVEN O CLOCK. This is what I dont understand. He has his own iPod, and he does not know my passcode (its a 5 letter word). the only reason he could possibly want to take my things (my parents dont beleive me) is to cause me greif. I love my brother so much, but I do wish he would actually take the time to talk, or at least discuss why he is taking things. I dont really mind his taking things, and I make sure to make a big deal when I find out so he knows its a bad thing; but my parents do nothing, even though they know perfectly well he steals from me. If someone could help, or relate, it would really help me feel better. I am a 16 yr old Junior in Highschool, he will be a 14 yr old freshmen. it is difficult for me to make friends I can talk to about this (I have Aspergers) thnxs

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