Preschool Kleptomaniac

How can we stop our four-year-old from stealing? It seems like everywhere we go – church, stores, museums, friends' houses – he walks out with something that doesn't belong to him. I have a feeling that he's just being irresponsible-that he puts things in his pocket and then forgets about them. My husband and I have talked to him several times about why this behavior is wrong. We've told him what the Bible has to say about stealing. We've even tried punishing him. But he keeps doing it. What should we do now?

You’re on the right track when you start out by adopting a biblical approach. A child’s spiritual training should begin early. It should be practical and tied directly to the realities of everyday life. It’s important to tell your son that stealing is wrong and that his actions are making God sad. But it’s also crucial to remember that a four-year-old child tends to respond more readily to actions than words. If you don’t back up your verbal lessons with powerful consequences, he’s unlikely to change his behavior.

You mention that you’ve tried punishing him. That’s good. But the fact that your efforts haven’t yielded much in the way of results leads us to suppose that the consequences you’ve imposed haven’t been significant enough to have any effect or that they were communicated in an ineffective way. The punishment needs to fit the crime. We’d suggest that what your son needs is a practical object lesson. He needs to know what it feels like when someone takes something away from him that he holds dear.

Let him know that the next time he takes an item from church, a friend’s home, or anywhere else, you will be taking something away from him. Then, if it happens again, go into his room while he is occupied elsewhere and remove one of his favorite toys, books, or stuffed animals.

When he discovers that this cherished item is missing, tell him that you took it away and that he won’t be getting it back for a while. One or two days are probably sufficient.

In addition, the next time you discover that he’s taken something that doesn’t belong to him, have him return it at once and apologize to the person he took it from. That will cement the lesson in his mind in an immediate and very practical way. For example, if he’s taken a toy or book from his Sunday school class, he should apologize to his teacher. It would also be a good idea to work with the teacher to set up a restitution plan. For example, he might be required to miss out on a fun activity or stay after class in order to help clean up the room. If you’re correct in thinking that your son doesn’t actually mean to steal – that he simply plays with an item, puts it in his pocket, and forgets to put it back – this plan should nip the stealing behavior in the bud rather quickly.

Though we can’t say for certain without knowing a great deal more about your son and his background, a possibility does exist that his actions might be a manifestation of deeper issues. For example, if he’s an adopted child who suffered early trauma or neglect, or if you’ve noticed that he tends to hoard food, you should seek professional help. Call us. Our Counseling department can refer you to a licensed Christian therapist in practicing in your local area. They’re also available to speak with you over the phone if you think this might be helpful.


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Parents’ Guide to the Spiritual Growth of Children

The Low-Pressure Guide to Parenting Your Preschooler

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