This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more info.
Most kids go through a phase where they steal things that don’t belong to them. So what should you do when your son or daughter starts doing it? How do you stop kids from stealing?
The most important thing to do is to step in as soon as it starts to become a problem. For most kids, that’ll be when they’re really young.
Initially, young kids steal because they don’t understand that the things they want are not always theirs.
They see a nice new toy and their first thought is, “I want that.” The only way they know how to get it is by taking it.
In their mind, they’re not stealing, they’re simply getting what they want. Whether it’s a toy at the store or something another child is playing with.
As a parent, it’s easy to think, “Oh they’re just little, they don’t understand. They aren’t taking it to be mean.”
This is not the stance you want to take.
Right now, yes, it might be completely harmless. However, it doesn’t take long at all before it becomes a bad habit and escalates into something more.
The longer you wait, the harder it’ll be to teach your kids the importance of not taking things that don’t belong to them.
At What Age Should You Start Teaching Your Kids Not to Steal?
In my opinion, if a child is old enough to take away a toy from another child, they’re old enough to give it back.
If they’re old enough to take something off a shelf, they’re old enough to put it back.
With my first two kids, I didn’t think they were old enough to understand what they were doing the first time they started taking things.
However, as I had my next two and as each of my kids get older, I realized that little kids (even babies) understand more than we think they do.
If you stop this behavior the first couple times it happens, it’ll never grow into a bad habit.
The way you can help your young toddler is through the following steps.
- If you notice your son or daughter take something they shouldn’t, (from another child or somewhere they aren’t supposed to get into) immediately step in and say, “No, let’s not get that. It’s not yours.” Say it in a kind, but firm voice, and walk them over to where the item first was.
- Gently tell them, “Let’s put it back now,” and help them put the item back where it first was. It’s likely and normal that at first, the child will start crying. If they do, just say, “No, you can’t have something that isn’t yours.” Hold them and help them to calm down. Give them a hug and let them know you love them.
- Once they’ve calmed down, help them find a toy/item that they can play with. Talk to them just like you would an older child. Explain why they can’t have the first item but it’s ok to have the second.
The first couple times, your son or daughter will likely respond negatively.
They really don’t understand that what they did was wrong. They don’t understand why it was wrong.
However, it only takes a couple times before they will start to understand.
It’s far easier to teach a young child not to take things as soon as the behavior starts. If you let it slide until they get older, it gets really confusing for the kids.
They’ll recognize you’re getting after them for something they do all the time. Why is it suddenly not ok?
Teach Your Kids to Respect the Personal Property of Others
A big part of helping kids not to steal is teaching them to respect other people’s things.
You can’t respect another’s property and steal from them at the same time.
With that in mind, I focus a lot on teaching my kids what it means to own and be responsible for something.
For example, each of my boys has their own box of toys. Each of them has their own drawer for their clothes.
I’ve strongly emphasized it is not ok to take things from their brother’s toy box. It’s not ok to open their brother’s drawer for any reason without permission.
If they want to play with one somebody else’s stuff, they need to ask nicely first.
If they want to get in their brother’s drawer they have to ask first.
One way to help them understand this is by letting them know if they don’t want their brothers getting into their stuff, they can’t get into their brother’s stuff. This helps them to put themselves in the shoes of the person they’re taking things from.
Another way I teach them to respect other people’s property is, I let them know they are not allowed to even go into my bedroom (or anybody else’s) unless they’ve asked first.
It is never ok to walk into somebody else’s room and take something from the dresser, a drawer, or even the floor. If they want something, they have to ask first.
Whatever they want there is a right way to get it.
What to do if the Stealing Doesn’t Stop as They Get Older
Now that I have four kids, I focus a lot on teaching my kids to respect other people’s property.
However, I didn’t to that as much with my older boys. They’ve often had a harder time not stealing then my younger boys do because of it.
There are two big things I’ve done to help my older boys understand the importance of not stealing.
1) If They Steal, They Have to Make it Right
A couple months ago, I woke up and found that one of my boys had gotten into the candy bucket.
He’d eaten several dozen pieces of candy and the rest was scattered all over his bedroom floor.
When I saw what he’d done, I sat him down and talked to him for awhile. I explained why it was wrong and that he’d have to make it right.
After I finished talking to him, he had to clean up every single wrapper and piece of candy off his floor. He brought the empty wrappers to me and I told him he’d have to pay me back for them.
I use paper tickets in my home as a reward system for the kids. Once they get enough tickets, they can exchange them for a reward.
My son brought me the empty wrappers and I helped him count them. For every wrapper, he had to give me a certain number of tickets.
He didn’t have near enough tickets to cover it all, so I wrote down how much he owed me on the board where he could see it.
Every night, as we passed out tickets, I would give him the tickets he’d earned that day. Afterwards, I’d ask him, “Do you owe any tickets”?
He’d look at the number on the board and nod his head.
As he gave me his tickets, I’d ask if he understood why he owed the tickets and why what he’d done was wrong.
Each time we talked, I’d make sure to tell him I loved him so much. I’d tell him it was really important to me that he understand that stealing was not ok. I’d give him a hug and help him get excited for the day when all of it would be paid off.
I wasn’t talking to him to let him know he was a bad kid. I never rubbed it in his face or put him down for the mistake.
All that would do is lower his self-esteem.
Every conversation we had, I was careful to let him know that it’s ok to make mistakes, but we do have to make them right.
It took a couple weeks for him to pay for all the candy he’d stolen but, when he did, he was so excited and proud of himself!
I let him know that I was proud of him too for making it right.
Since then, he has only had one instance come up where he had to pay me back for something he stole.
2) Do They Know the Right Way to Get Things
In most cases, I’ve found that when older kids steal (ages 4-10) it’s because they don’t know the right way to get what they want.
Anytime something comes up and one of my kids takes something, I make sure they know how they could have gotten what they stole the right way.
Doing this helps my kids to know that stealing is not the only way to get something.
It’s ok for them to want something, that isn’t theirs. They just need to find the right, honest way to get it.
Since I started doing this, it’s very common in my home for one of my boys to come to me and say, “Mom, how can I earn this? What can I do to get this thing I want?”
Depending on what they ask for, I give them a way to earn it.
If it’s something small, I usually ask them to do a small chore.
If it’s a bigger item, it might take a couple days for them to earn it.
I’m always careful to make sure I don’t overwhelm them with what it takes to get things the right way. I take their age into account and, the older they are, the bigger the job is.
The last thing you want to do is make it seem impossible for your son/daughter to earn anything they want. If they think it’s impossible, stealing will feel like their only option.
When my kids ask, I help them to get excited about it and we work together so they can earn what they’re asking for.
Another bonus of doing things this way is, I’ve noticed that when they earn something, they appreciate it so much more than when it’s just handed to them! They worked for it, they earned it and they want to take care of it.
Have you had problems with your kids stealing? What have you noticed helps the most? What do you think of these ideas?
Let me know by leaving a comment below!
Join other Ambitious Mommies and get access to updates, free printables, and other exclusive content to help you meet your own goals and ambitions!