Preschoolers and Stealing

What do you do when your preschooler comes home with a note alerting you he's been pilfering toys? MomSpeaker EJ Curran recently received just that note — and went about teaching her son not to steal in a rational, practical, totally admirable way. Here's her story.

When it comes to our youngest son, AJ, the past few weeks — ahem, months — have been a tad frustrating. He has developed quite the knack for trouble. He's always been the do-as-he-pleases, defiant child but lately, every waking moment (and moments where I'm not awake but he is . . . say, at 4am) seems riddled with his trouble. Whether he's filling up his brother's dresser drawers with water, smashing a bar of soap into the bristles of a hairbrush, breaking his siblings' toys, pulling down the curtains or attempting to take food and drink out of the refrigerator for the fifteenth time in a minute, he just loves to do what he wants, when he wants and as many times as he wants, no matter how many timeouts ensue.

Don't get me wrong, this little troublemaker is as charming as they come. He knows that he merely has to make a funny face or cross his eyes at me to make me giggle. His snuggles are simply the best. His face beams with delight when I draw him an airplane, a school bus or a vacuum. (Yes, he is obsessed with vacuums. Take him to the vacuum department at Wal-Mart and he is one happy dude). I've taught him right and wrong, just as I have with his older siblings. I've taught him boundaries. The troublesome behaviors continue. At his age, he's just not getting most of it — or doesn't want to just yet. Several times over the past few months, I've asked myself in tears, "What the heck am I doing wrong? He just won't behave!"

I knew it wouldn't be long before the notes started coming home from school. Sure enough, I got the first one yesterday. Apparently, he's stealing toy cars from school and attempting to take them home. This actually made me laugh out loud because he literally hides a car or an airplane toy of his own in his backpack every morning before hopping on the bus. Sometimes I catch him and sometimes I'm too busy with shoes, jackets and lunchboxes and four kids scrambling for their buses to remember to check. Knowing that AJ tries to take his own toys to school every day, I realized that he wasn't stealing toys from school out of malice. He literally just thinks everything is his. It's all the same to him. If it's a car, he likes it — a lot. Therefore, he wants it. Obviously, this way of thinking isn't going to do him any favors as he grows up. So the teaching and learning continues. While I have not figured out how to get him to stop smashing bars of soap into hairbrushes or how to stop climbing the shelves in his bedroom, I know that teaching him not to steal will be easier.

Why do preschoolers steal — and what can a parent do about it?

Preschoolers may steal out of impulse, peer pressure or to seek attention. In fact, the word "stealing" likely doesn't mean anything to most preschoolers. Children under the age of 4 do not yet grasp the concepts of "mine" and "yours." I know my son is incredibly impulsive and his stealing of toy cars at school likely stems from this. I like that. I'll have that.

To help teach the wrongs of stealing, parents should take some immediate steps to guide the child in he right direction. Stealing should be addressed immediately, and rather than overreacting, parents should explain values such as honesty and sensitivity and have the child return the belonging. Returning the object right away, with an apology included, will help convey ownership as well as honesty and sensitivity to the child.

A great way to turn stealing into a teachable moment is to first correct the child's wishful ownership. Say, "You wish the toy car was yours, but who does it really belong to?" Lead the child to developing the answer him- or herself. Then have them return the belonging.

Don't expect immediate results. If I've learned anything as a mom of many kiddos, it takes time to develop certain values in children. Stealing in preschool is just another bump in the road that will need some consistent smoothing out. In the meantime, I'll be scrubbing crayon-drawn monsters off the walls, rehanging curtains and emptying out dresser drawers full of water — again . . . and again . . . and again . . . and again.

EJ Curran is a Delaware mom. This post is adapted from her blog, Four Little Monsters, at 

Categories: MomSpeak