Stealing is taking another person's property without permission.


Stealing is taking someone's property without permission. Very young children do not understand the concept of personal property. When they see something they want, they simply take it. Young children generally take things for immediate use only, whereas older children will take them "for keeps." Since they have no sense of personal property, young children should not be accused of stealing when they take another person's things without permission. However, the concept of stealing should be explained right from the start, even before the child can understand. If a parent, teacher, or other adult simply tells the child, "Don't take Sally's crayon," the child will believe only that taking Sally's crayon is wrong, while taking a crayon from Juan, or a cookie from Sally, is okay. A child must be told repeatedly that taking other people's things is wrong in order to develop an understanding of the broader concept of stealing.

Most children have a basic sense of "mine" and "not mine" by the age of two and can therefore begin to learn respect for other people's possessions. However, a true understanding of the harmful nature of stealing does not begin to develop until about age five to seven. At this age, children are deterred from stealing mostly by their fear of parental disapproval. Internal motivations of conscience and guilt do not develop until the middle childhood years. Once the recognition of property boundaries develops, stealing becomes an intentional act that must be addressed more deliberately.

Children steal for a number of reasons. Young children, or older children who have not developed sufficient self-control, may steal to achieve instant gratification when an object cannot be obtained immediately by honest means. Older children may steal to gain a sense of power, to acquire status with peers who resist authority, to get attention, to take revenge on someone who has hurt them, to alleviate boredom, or to vent unresolved feelings of anger or fear. Children who steal are often expressing displaced feelings of anxiety , rage, or alienation resulting from a disruption in their life, such as a parent's divorce or remarriage.

People who feel excluded or disconnected from society have fewer qualms about stealing, because they have less sense of respect, trust, or responsibility in relation to the community. They may even purposely steal in retaliation for the pain they feel society has inflicted on them. Studies have shown a direct correlation between stealing and alienation. Community-building programs in U.S. high schools have greatly reduced the incidence of theft by developing a sense of unity among the students and faculty. When a child feels integrated into a community, he or she is more likely to support all members of that community. Stealing becomes less tempting in a mutually supportive environment.

A child who is caught stealing for the first time should be treated compassionately; the focus should be on the reason(s) for the act rather than on the act itself. Parents, teachers, or other adult caregivers need to discern if the child lacks self-control, is angry (and with whom), needs attention, is bored, feels pressured by peers to cross boundaries, feels alienated from the community, has poor self-esteem , or needs to develop more positive moral values. A habitual stealer is expressing a serious internal problem that needs close attention. Children at risk of becoming habitual stealers often times have the following characteristics: low self-esteem; strong desires and weak self-control (impulsiveness); a lack of sensitivity to others; are angry, bored, or feel disconnected; spend a great deal of time alone; have recently experienced a significant disruption in their lives. Stealing is a behavior problem, not a character problem. The behavior can be corrected if the underlying difficulty is resolved.


Children under the age of five generally are not sufficiently able to understand the concept of property to realize that they are stealing. Even though they might not understand, parents of children this age should make the child give back whatever was stolen and should explain why stealing is bad and how it hurts other people. The child should not be labeled bad, but the lesson should be made clear that stealing is wrong.

Elementary school

Children in elementary school generally are developed enough to understand that stealing is wrong and why it is wrong. When elementary school children steal, it is generally because they have seen something that they want, and they lack well-developed self-control. Children in this age group who are caught stealing should be made to take the item back or should be made to find ways to make enough money to pay for what they have stolen. Usually if a parent or other adult forces the child to apologize to the person from whom they stole, the embarrassment is enough to deter repeated episodes of stealing.

Middle and high school

Older children steal for different reasons than younger children. They want to feel powerful or want something expensive to try to keep up with their peers, or they may be distressed about a situation at home. Or they may want to fit in with a group. One fourth of all people caught shoplifting are between the ages of 13 and 17. In most cases children outgrow this behavior, but it still needs to be dealt with in a serious manner. Children who steal are not necessarily delinquents; however, children over the age of 15 who steal may have serious underlying troubles that need to be dealt with by a mental health professional.

Common problems

Though children who steal do so for a number of different reasons, stealing should always be treated seriously. If there is an underlying cause, such as unhappiness at home, then resolving the underlying problem usually resolves the stealing behavior, although the stealing itself should never be ignored.

Parental concerns

Just because a child has stolen does not mean he or she is going to grow up to live a life of crime. Children who steal are often helpful around the house, get good grades, and are otherwise good kids. Stealing, or a suspicion of stealing, needs to be dealt with in a serious manner, but once the matter has been dealt with, it should not be brought up again. In this way the child has a chance to start over with a clean slate.

When to call the doctor

If stealing is accompanied by other problems, such as difficulty interacting with peers or poor grades, it may be a sign of a serious underlying problem. If a child steals after the age of 15 or has gotten caught stealing more than once or there is a suspicion of underlying emotional or drug problems that might be causing the stealing, a mental health professional should be consulted.



Caputo, Gail. What's in the Bag?: A Shoplifting Treatment and Education Program. Lanham, MD: American Correctional Association, 2003.

Elquist, G. L. Shoplifting Stories: From the Inside-Out. Philadelphia: Xlibris Corp., 2001.

Segrave, Kerry. Shoplifting: A Social History. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2001.


Nelson, Judy, Beth Nelson, and Eileen S. Nelson. "Relationship Between Parents, Peers, Morality, and Theft in an Adolescent Sample." High School Journal 83 (February 2000): 31.

"Toddler Steals Toys." Contemporary Pediatrics 17 (January 2000): 52.


American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 3615 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20016–3007. Web site:

Tish Davidson, A.M. Dianne Daeg de Mott

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