It can start simply enough with finding an unfamiliar toy in your child’s backpack. When you ask where it came from, you might get a breezy response like, “Oh, my friend, Liam, told me I could have it.”

But then a few days later, you notice a couple dollars missing from your wallet and you wonder whether or not your child might be stealing.

At some point, children over the age of 5 may experiment with intentional stealing—such as taking a toy that doesn’t belong to them. The trouble comes when kids develop a regular pattern of stealing, leading to trust issues at home and even at school and in the community.

Why Kids Steal

Think back to when you were a kid: How tempting was it to snag a candy bar at the neighborhood market when no one was looking? After all, Mom said “no” and that gooey caramel and chocolate candy bar was calling to you.

Most elementary school-age kids understand the idea of ownership and that it is wrong to take something that is not theirs. Yet, there are still reasons why a child might steal:

  • Instant gratification: They want that toy NOW and it cannot wait!
  • The excitement of getting away with stealing
  • They see their friends stealing
  • Their friend talks them into it
  • Impulse control

In some cases, stealing is tied to underlying issues of aggression, lying, disobedience, low self-esteem, or learning challenges. Consult with your child’s pediatrician, if you have concerns.

Caught in the Act

If, for example, several hours after a trip home from the grocery store, you find a pack of bubblegum in your daughter’s purse. If it’s obvious that the gum was taken from the store, it’s time for a talk:

  • “Emma, did you take this bubblegum from the grocery store? We did not pay for this and it doesn’t belong to us.”
  • “That’s stealing, and stealing is wrong. What do you think you need to do now? How can I help?” Guide your child to apologize, and return it, or pay for it.
  • At a later time, when both you and your child are relaxed, calmly and openly discuss the reasons that stealing is wrong. You could also use this talk to ask:
    • How did it feel to steal the candy bar?
    • What can you say to yourself when you are tempted to take something again?
    • What will you do differently next time?

Establish Consequences

Be positive, but firm. Whether Susie has stolen from her friend or the toy store, she should have the opportunity to return the stolen goods. Saying it’s wrong to steal but allowing her to keep the item, sends a confusing message. If you are unable to return the item (say, an already eaten candy bar), guide your child back to the store, apologize, and pay for the item. Get an agreement about what they will do differently next time, and make it part of the apology. You can give them the opportunity to earn the money to pay for the item if needed.

Teaching Empathy

This is a natural opportunity to help your child learn the concept of empathy, which is the ability to understand or feel what another person is experiencing: “Taking money from my wallet without permission is stealing. I feel _________ (disappointed, angry, sad) when you take things without asking.”

In the Meantime…

Establish some house rules:

  • Toys at your friend’s houses belong to them.
  • Toys at our house belong to you.
  • You can take turns with toys at each other’s houses, but unless an adult gives you something to take with you, it must stay at your friend’s house.

You may want to keep a watchful eye on your child to make sure the stealing pattern doesn’t continue. During this time, some parents increase their child’s positive extracurricular activities to keep them busy. Healthy, supervised hobbies could include music lessons, sports, or after-school clubs.

Sometimes stealing can be a cry for help or attention. Spending extra quality time with your child after school and on the weekends, can help build trust, honesty, and support for every member of the family.



This article is brought to you by Parenting Now! Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (  Parenting Now! is passionate about happy, healthy families. For more information about Parenting Now! please visit their website ( or contact us at

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