11klass.xlarge1 Last week in an article about apologizing, I confessed to stealing a friend’s hair brush when I was six. That brush burned a hole in the back of my closet until the unbearable guilt ratted me out to my Mom. She marched me over to my friend’s house and stood at a supervisory distance while I did the death walk of the condemned up to the door. The brush was returned together with a shaky, sincere apology. I never felt so bad, before or since. Thus ended my career in petty crime.

When I read Perri Klass’s article in the New York Times Health section, Stealing in Childhood Does Not a Criminal Make, it rang so true. Dr. Klass is a pediatrician/writer whose career I’ve followed since my graduate school, her residency days back in the '80s. Like me, she is now a seasoned professional with kids of her own.

When she caught her seven-year-old with a stash of bills lifted from her wallet she worried, “How do we handle this? What does it mean? Does this tell us something we didn’t know about our child’s character? About ourselves? Is something really wrong?”

Dr. Klass consulted child development experts. Here is a summary of what she learned: Most children will take something that’s not theirs at some time.

2-4 year olds will take something, probably because they are struggling with the concept of mine vs. yours and sharing in general. A two year old is not a thief.

5-8 year olds know the rules of ownership. If they take something that’s not theirs they will hide it, even deny they took it if confronted. “This turns out to be extremely common,” wrote Dr. Klass.

“This phase is a testing phase,” said Dr. Barbara Howard, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, consulted by Dr. Klass. “Kids are trying to find out what happens if you get caught…” Dr. Martin Stein, a professor of pediatrics at UC San Diego, said, “It’s really a teachable moment.”

Most young children who steal fall into this category, they simply admire what they don’t have and they take it. Parents need to be concerned but not overly worried that this is a fixed behavior.

8 years old and older.  Truly troubling are children who don’t stop taking things after being corrected or who are angry or anxious and are stealing as a form of acting out. 

“If a middle school child is stealing money, you have to worry, already, about drugs and alcohol and the other influences in that child’s life.”  Dr. Klass goes on, “ …a pattern of stealing without any remorse can mark a serious problem – and that child needs help right away.” If you are worried about a child like this, talk to his or her pediatrician to discuss the matter and to get a referral to the appropriate behavioral health professional.

Most parents, like my mother, can take a little childish thievery in stride as part of growing up and an opportunity in child rearing. Dr. Howard advises parents, once you know of the theft, “They [the children] need to be stopped, they need to pay it back, and they need to apologize, but they shouldn’t be taken to the county jail as if they’re bound to be criminals forever.”

Whew! My Mom dealt with my six-year-old crime spree exactly right, thus sparing the world another Bonnie Parker.

Has your child ever stolen something? How did you handle it? Did you when you were a kid? How did your parents handle it?

To read Dr. Klass's article in it's entirety click here.

Illustration by Lars Leetaru for the NYT