By Dr. Gerald Deskin, Ph.D.
Children aged five and under often take things, just because they want them. They may not have learned the lesson that you they are not supposed to steal or lie. By the age of six they should have learned that both are unacceptable. However, sometimes children take things for a variety of reasons, many of which do not make sense to parents.
Children take things and lie about it may do so because they want parental attention. They do so in such a way that they are sure to get caught. They do it for the same reason they lie about feeling ill. For at least a short period of time they become the focus of their parents interest and attention. They may lie to impress their friends with what they can get away with, or lie to a teacher or other adult about their family to feel a momentary superiority about how they can fool others.
Children may lie about stealing so they won't be found out for taking something. More often children will lie to avoid an unpleasant confrontation. A child who steals objects will often lie to deny that something was taken.
Most children grow out of this behavior by age six if the parents have handled the situation appropriately and firmly. Children need to learn that these behaviors are not acceptable and be firmly disciplined not in a physical manner, but one that teaches them they are loved by their parents, but they need to learn what behavior is acceptable. Children need to learn not only that stealing is wrong, but the reason why it is wrong. It may take more than one session with your child to talk about what is right and what is wrong and why it is important.
Children should not be punished too severely at age six for this behavior. It probably will recur more than once, but each time your child should learn that you will not tolerate such behavior without setting a consequence. One consequence is that your child will have to return the object and apologize, or make restitution. The child learns that there will be no profit from stealing and so give up the behavior.
Use the behavior to teach your child a lesson. Discuss the subject of trust and how one cannot trust a person who steals, and how he/she would like it if no one showed them trust. Be careful not to imply that you no longer trust your child. To do this would rob the child of any reason to change this negative behavior. Instead make a contract with your child to not repeat the behavior so that you can trust him/her.
Parents need to accept the fact that children as well as ourselves have very strong urges to have something. As adults we learn to delay gratification, sometimes for a very long time, or forever. I may never have that car I want, but as an adult I realize I can live without it. Children have not yet built up this ability to wait. They want what they want right now. That is what gets them into trouble at times. With your loving-kindness, you can help them learn to wait. This becomes easier as one matures, at least for most of us.
Suggestions for parents:
Expect your child to occasionally steal some object, at least to age six, but use each incidence of stealing to teach your child that it is wrong.
The same is true of stealing and then lying about it, but by age six this behavior should drop out.
Make your own behavior a model for your children to follow.