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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

When Children Steal

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Aug 11th 2009

Does the child in the photo look like he is going to steal some cookies?

Tuesday, August 11 2009, Perri Klass, MD, writing for the Science Section of the New York Times wrote an interesting article about children who steal. The article should come as a great relief to parents of young kids who fear that their boy or girl may become part of the list of America's Most Wanted. Dr. Klass quotes a variety of experts in the field of child development who state that stealing is very common in children from ages two to nine and even ten years old.

According to the experts quoted in the article, there are a variety of reasons why children steal. For example, a two year old child might take something from another child because, at that age, there is little or no understanding of the concept to sharing. In fact, at age two, groups of children are usually described as being involved in parallel play where there is no real interaction between children. In other words, two-year-olds have no understanding of "rules" that guide play at a later age.

By the time children reach the age of six or seven, they understand rules, regulations and, to some extent, consequences. They may take something from another child or shoplift from a store. Knowing right and wrong, they may try to hide the ill begotten "goods." The motivation for this activity can be as simple as testing the limits.

One of the most important messages of the article it two fold: 1. Parents need not get worked up into an emotional state for fear that their child has taken the first step towards career of criminal behavior and, 2. Parents need to talk gently to their child, explain why stealing is wrong and ask the child to make restitution and apologize. In other words, the normal episode of childhood stealing is a "teachable moment" during which children truly learn what is right and wrong in the outside world. It is important for parents to refrain from exaggerating the happening, to remain calm and to talk calmly to their children.

I remember stealing from another child when I was very young. The other boy bought this silly little plastic toy. I wanted it because I wanted it. He saw me steal it from him (what a master thief I was) and I had to return it. He told me he would punch me in the nose if I did not return it. I returned it and the episode was over. I haven't stolen anything since.

Your comments and questions are welcome.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

press charges - mb - Mar 21st 2010

ya call the cops and press charges. i know heis ur son but he is old enough to know what is right or wrong. and he is just doing it to u guys cause yall r his parents and he knows that yall love him and will most likely not put ur foot down. and that there is a great risk that he can cont.. stealing i dk maybe im too harsh but i have 4 kids and that is what i would do. good luck if all else fails kick his ass.

Preschool thief - - Jan 18th 2010

At the preschool i work at, a little girl age 5 or 6 constantly steals from other and her parents. She takes money to hand out or buy food, steals others lunches and school materials. When she is spoken to, she stays silent looking at you in the eye, wobble with her hands at her waist and may even laugh. Logical and natural consequences have happened, but there seems to be no improvement. You can tell she knows right from wrong because she always tries to hide it when she steals, and lies constantly. at one simple question like "who gave you 3 dollars?" she can say 5 diferent names or situations from "My mother" to "I found it".

Children who don`t stop stealing - John Brennan - Oct 19th 2009

Our son started to steal before he was 10. He has continued to steal from us  (and more recently from others, ever since). H e does so even though knows it is crippling us financially. Finally, we have recently notified the police in the hope that the courts will impose a sentence that will both punish him and help him to overcome this. Our own efforts to deal with the problem have not worked. He watched his mother cry and plead with him not to take anymore but he carried on and stole over £800 in a few days. He offends despite the fact that he is always caught out as he does not do it in a very clever way - it is always obvious. He does not take drugs - we are confident of that, but he does drink and as far as we know he gambles on slot machines to try to recover the money he has taken. Our 2 daughters are not supportive of our decision but do not offer any practical assistance other than to say he has a medical problem and he should be urgently assessed. He is now 22 years old.

Any ideas? 

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