Kid Shoplifting Is a Thing, and Here's How to Deal With It

Recently, I was comparing parenting war stories with one of my best friends. I had just finished telling her about my son's latest and greatest tantrum (over my refusal to give him a second dessert; oh, the horror!), when she topped me with her latest bit of kid craziness. She had taken her 5-year-old daughter to run some errands. They arrived home 30 minutes after leaving their last stop, battling traffic the whole way home, and that's when my friend realized her daughter had given herself a little five-finger discount in the form of a small toy.

"It was one of those parenting moments when I knew I had to step up, even though it was going to be a pain in the *ss," she told me. "We went to her piggy bank and collected enough money to pay for the toy, then drove the 30 minutes back to the store, where she apologized to the owner and passed over the money." Her daughter felt terrible and promised to never steal again, but my friend was still confused about what inspired her to shoplift in the first place.

The truth is, it's pretty common for small children to shoplift little toys, candies, or other easily concealed items. Very young children might not understand that the things they want cost money, and that they can't take something without paying for it. School-aged kids usually grasp that concept, but they might not have developed enough self control to stop themselves from pocketing an item they want and either know or assume you won't buy them.

The reasons behind a child's shoplifting can be simple — I wanted the candy; mom said no to buying the candy — or more complex. If you discover your child has stolen from a shop, a friend, or even you, here's what to do next.

  1. Talk to your child to determine the root cause. If this is the first time you've caught your child stealing, have an age-appropriate conversation about what inspired the action. Was it just a fluke occurrence, or is there a deeper reason behind it? Some kids steal because they want attention or are dealing with stress at home or at school. If stealing has become a pattern, assume that a bigger issue is at work. Consider enlisting the help of a family therapist, counselor, or doctor.
  2. Help your child understand why stealing is wrong. Kids need to know that stealing isn't a victim-less crime. Explain how taking things from a store is the same as taking money from the people who own that store. Also explain that stealing is a crime and can get them in trouble not just with you, but with the police, and can even lead to jail time.
  3. Assist your child in making restitution. Make your child return stolen items to the store and apologize to the owner or manager. Most shops will accept an apology and either a return or a payment for the item if it's a first-time offense, especially if the shoplifter is a small child who didn't realize they were committing a crime. It's important to make older children take responsibility for their actions as well, even if fessing up leads to the store getting security or the police involved. That embarrassing and scary experience is sure to leave a lasting impression.
  4. Keep a close eye on your child to make sure stealing isn't a pattern. Pay special attention to your child when you're out shopping to make sure the incident was isolated. If your little kid still isn't getting why stealing is wrong, keep them away from situations where it might be a temptation and make sure they know what the consequences will be if it happens again.