By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Small children engage in stealing for at least two reasons. First, everything “belongs” to a 2- or 3-year-old until someone tells him differently.

If he sees a toy in a toy store or a bag of cookies in a grocery, he thinks they’re his – until he learns that such things belong to others. This lesson takes time.

Punishment will drive the behavior underground, only to come out later in less acceptable ways. Gentle explanations of how to respect possessions, coupled with firm limits, are much more effective.

A more subtle reason for stealing is the desire to identify with others. As a preschool child increasingly identifies with his parents, his siblings or his schoolmates, he may take things from them. Thus, in his concrete way of thinking, he becomes like them.

When stealing first appears, it’s exploratory and acquisitive rather than a sign of being “bad.” If you explode with anger, you’re likely to engender fear and repeated acts of stealing.

Of course it frightens a parent when a small child steals, particularly if he seems to realize what he’s done by lying about it. But if you can understand that stealing is universal among children, you can avoid overreacting – and turning such behavior into a pattern.

Your goal is to use each episode as an opportunity to teach. But a child will only be ready to learn if he isn’t overwhelmed by guilt.

Helping a child understand his reasons for taking others’ possessions enables him to hear you when you discuss others’ rights. Learning to respect others’ possessions and territory is a long-term goal. Handled with sensitivity, each stealing episode can lead in that direction.

Try not to label the child as a thief as you talk to him, and don’t harp on the incident afterward. It’s wise not to confront the child by asking him whether he stole; this may just force him to lie.

Simply make clear that you know where the object came from. Ask your child to produce it if necessary, and say, “You know you can’t take something that isn’t yours.”

Help the child return the object to its owner and apologize, even if it means going back to the store and suffering the embarrassment of returning the object or paying for it. Let the child work off the cost by doing chores.

Preventing stealing involves patient teaching – over and over. Be consistent in your reactions each time.

  1. Show the child how to ask for what he wants.
  2. Make simple rules about sharing with others, such as “You don’t take another child’s toy without asking her and offering her one of yours.”
  3. Explain the concept of borrowing and returning a toy: “You may ask whether you can play with it. If they say no, that’s it. If they say yes, you must offer to return it.”

“If we’re in a store and you want some cookies, ask me whether you can have them. If I say yes, wait until I’ve paid for them before you take them.”

In this way, you’re teaching the child respect for others’ things, demonstrating the manners he needs when he asks for something and helping him learn to delay gratification.

It’s also important to explain why such rules are necessary – “to protect others’ toys the way you want to protect yours.” Help him see your point of view: You can’t allow him to take others’ possessions.

Then ask him how he plans to handle the situation, to give part of the responsibility of limits to him. If he can come up with a satisfactory solution, you can give him credit. Finally, and most important, when he succeeds, be sure to let him know you’re proud of him.

If stealing continues, look for possible underlying reasons. Is the child guilty and frightened and reacting by a sort of repetition-compulsion? Is he so insecure that he needs others’ possessions to make him feel like a whole person? Do others already disapprove of him and label him?

If he repeats his acts of stealing, he may be asking you for therapy. Don’t wait until he feels like a failure and the labels stick. Seek outside help. Your child’s doctor or the child psychiatry department at a teaching hospital can make a referral.

(This article is adapted from “Touchpoints: Birth to Three,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.)

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Prior to Dr. Brazelton’s passing in 2018, he was the founder and director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is now the director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.