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Teaching your children about stealing and helping them learn not to steal is just like helping them deal with any other limits. When you see your child take something she should not have taken, there are two things to do. You set limits by firmly saying no and insisting your child put back what has been taken. Next, you set up an expectation by firmly concluding “…and do not do that again!” Remember, children do not learn most things the first time – they don’t need to. It is quite acceptable if your child gradually learns to accept such limits and to conform to such expectations. Thus, you initially set the limit and gradually increase your response to your child’s behavior over time.

For example, the first time your toddler picks up a piece of candy at the store you tell him firmly to put it back and to never take things from a store. The third or fourth time the behavior occurs, you insist, express annoyance, and may negatively discipline. You may have your child take the candy to the clerk and confess he has taken it or something else emphasizing the seriousness of the offense. Over time, your child finally comes to feel taking things that do not belong to him is a “bad” thing to do. If you follow through consistently, your child gets to the point he chastises himself emotionally when he steals. This is what is meant by “guilty conscience.”

Conscience develops over time. The formation of these inner controls and self-sanctions begins with your toddler and continues throughout life. It is not unusual for your child of eight or nine to steal something on rare occasions. This does not mean your child is going to grow up to be a thief. It simply means he has not yet developed enough internal control and self-sanction to limit his own behavior and to conform to parental expectations. One or two incidents of stealing by your adolescent are not, in themselves, alarming. Such episodes should be dealt with primarily in verbal and emotional terms. Let your adolescent know you are disappointed in him, a little ashamed; intentionally play on his guilt a little to make him feel bad. If he really does feel guilty, these feelings by themselves make it unlikely he repeats the behavior.

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