By the time a worried parent asked me about a child who had stolen something, I had some answers – because I had already been a worried parent and had asked my own pediatrician.
In our house we had gone through the usual process, but I had no idea how usual it was. First the casual inquiry, one parent to another: Did you take any money out of my wallet? Then the little rat’s nest of bills accidentally discovered in the 7-year-old’s room. The worrying, the questioning, the self-doubt: How do we handle this? What does it mean? Does this tell us something we don’t want to know about our child’s character? About ourselves? Is something really wrong?
“Most children will take something sometime,” said Dr. Barbara Howard, cheerfully.
Dr. Howard is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and some years after my own family crisis, I attended an educational talk she gave for pediatricians on behavior and development. Stealing was included matter of factly along with sleep problems, tantrums and all the rest.
A 2-year-old who takes something, she said, is probably going to be described as not being good at sharing, rather than as a thief, at least by a parent with a reasonable sense of child development. I see it, I want it, I take it, it’s mine.
Setting limits is a big part of taking good care of children this age. No, everything you want does not become yours, and sticky-fingered possession (these metaphors become the literal truth with small children) is not even one-tenth of the law.
But what about the somewhat older child, the 5- or 6- or 7-year-old, who clearly knows the rules and takes something from another child, from the classroom or even from a store – the child who makes some effort to hide the ill-gotten gains, and when confronted, perhaps flatly denies the crime?
This turns out, once again, to be extremely common. I had a 6-year-old patient once whose mother cried while spelling out the word shoplift in front of the daughter, who had walked out of a store with, I believe, a hair accessory. I see it, I want it, I take it.
But developmentally, there is something more complex going on.