A 9-Year-Old Has No Remorse For Stealing But Always Lets Himself Get Caught: What Should Parents Do?

Posted in: Grade School

Topics: Q+A

One morning in your daily rush to get them to the bus, you find your purse, left in its typical place on the kitchen table, wide open. The wallet is on the table, unzipped, with receipts scattered around it. That $10 bill you know was in the front is missing.

Tommy sheepishly sits right next to your wallet, and starts in on his Cheerios. You do a quick mental inventory. Did I forget a $10 lunch, or a coffee and snack at Starbucks? Did my spouse ask for a few bucks for gas last night? Both queries render a negative answer. And then the sinking feeling sets in.

“Where is the $10?” you ask Tommy quietly. No response.

“You did take it, didn’t you?” Tommy is still quiet, shaking his head. No eye contact. No seeming endorsement of your accusation, or any sense of guilt.

“Did you think I wouldn’t notice?” you ask, but then immediately regret the accusation inherent to your question. Still, you’re angry. What was he thinking? Did he even think at all? And then you backtrack.

“Why would you do this, Tommy? I know you did it. Just help me to understand why?”

But Tommy doesn’t know why. He just nods his head, and sticks to that infuriating blank stare.

Before we talk about Tommy, let’s talk more generally about stealing. It’s not as straight forward as it seems.

Stealing is, in fact, pretty complicated. In families that lack the financial means of others, kids might really want to keep up with their friends at school. For these kids, buying that extra candy bar, soda, or just having a few extra dollars in their pocket at the mall just isn’t possible. So they steal.

But this case is different.

Stealing, in Tommy’s case, is often a symbolic activity that represents for the child a claim, a kind of ownership even, of you as parent. He feels “entitled” to have more from you than you are giving, and so he just takes what he feels is rightfully his—whether that be your money or other items. He seemingly has no guilt about any of this, and usually gets caught. But remember: Kids like Tommy often have all sorts of guilt—they just don’t show it at first.

Let’s ask this slightly more complicated question: Why does Tommy allow himself to get caught?  

Probably because he wants you to know; he wants you to know that he feels he is entitled to more.

This means that you need to think about why he might be feeling deprived in the first place. If Tommy is sensing deprivation, where does this feeling come from?

The answer to this query, of course, will differ for every family, but if you don’t ask yourself these tough questions, you run the risk of missing the root causes of the behavior.

To make things more complicated, remember that catching Tommy is a good thing, and that it forces you to be a parent. There have to be repercussions. Tommy can’t just steal, and if he faces repercussions, at least he’s engaged with you.

As it turns out (though this is a generalization), the kids who sneak around stealing but manage to stealthily cover their tracks are not all that interested in engagement. These are the kids we really need to worry about. These are the ones who might continue this pattern elsewhere. But that is the subject of a different post.

For many kids, however, stealing and getting caught, to quote the famous pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, implies hope—hope because it’s an action that forces you to pay attention.

How Should Parents Respond?

So how do you respond? Naturally, you need to do something, and though in most cases rewards for good behavior are far superior to punishment, in this case, you have to do what you have to do. A kid who breaks the rules needs, within reason, to pay the piper.

You want to set in motion changes to make sure that this behavior doesn’t continue. That will likely take more than the average grounding or removal of the Xbox. Here are some suggestions for what to do:

  1. Take a solid, honest, often painful inventory. Why is Tommy feeling deprived? Are you working too much? Are you out of the house too much? Are you paying more attention to a younger sibling? Is there some kind of marital conflict? Is there an illness in a grandparent that is taking up much of your time and emotional energy? Real life issues are often perceived by kids as capricious and unfair. You might be working extra hours because times are tough, but if you don’t explicitly make that clear to Tommy, he might think that you’re working to avoid being with him.
  1. Talk with Tommy, but choose wisely when to do so. Don’t try to squeeze it all in during the frenzy of everyday stuff. Take him out for a walk or a drive to the local cafe. And, though you should let him know that you’re not happy with his actions, you’re more interested now in how he’s feeling. You can do this best by keeping your questions open-ended: “What’s life like for you now?” “How are you feeling about life at home?” “Are there some things right now that are bothering you?” Tommy fully expects the third-degree about the $10 bill, but you should stay away from enforcing that. Tommy feels bad enough; you know that from his behavior in the kitchen.
  1. If Tommy does shut down, derail him with seemingly unrelated comments. “Hey, you really seem to like that new video game,” or “Nice sneakers, Tommy, aren’t you glad we got them?” Taking focus off of the overt issue helps him to loosen up rather than to prepare for battle or stonewalling. Don’t worry—he knows that you’re trying to loosen him up, but he’ll appreciate the effort and the meaning behind it.
  1. Make comments about yourself and what is going on with you. This is a great opener, and if you assume he is feeling deprived of you, try saying something like, “You know, it’s really hard for me to spend so much energy on Grandma. I really miss being with you.” Or, “I know that Dad and I have been fighting. I bet it’s hard for you to hear it. I’m really sorry.” Then, that door for a discussion might open.
  1. If we assume that he really wants more of you, whether you get to talk about it or not, plan on taking some new action towards more consistent engagement. An invitation to watch a movie because you want his opinion, for example, moves him further along developmentally. It shows him that you’re interested in what he thinks and believes.

Certainly, if none of these tactics work, seeking professional help may be necessary. In some cases, particularly if this has gone on for a while, Tommy may be more able and willing to talk and play with a sensitive and caring therapist. Then you could be brought into the picture.

We shouldn’t become shrinks for our kids—that’s not what this is about.

This is about the fact that you know your kid better than you think. It just might take some retooling in the hectic lives we live to stop and consider the meaning behind our kids’ behavior—as well as our own.

This article was part of an ABC News segment and series, which previously aired on 11/02/2009.

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