How do you talk to your kids about shoplifting?

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Photo by jfeuchter, used under Creative Commons license.
My eighteen-year-old niece regularly watches my six-year-old daughter, and one recent outing included a trip to a local mall. My niece noticed that my daughter was playing with nail polish, but didn’t think much of it — until they returned home two hours later and the nail polish was in my daughter’s pocket.

My niece told me when I came home that evening, and at that point it wasn’t feasible to turn around and go back to the store to return it. The next day I confronted my daughter about the nail polish, and she explained to me that it “fell” into her pocket. We talked about shoplifting and not taking items that aren’t ours, but I’m not sure if a) she really understood what I was saying and b) if this was the best thing to do.

Parents of little kids: how have you talked to your kids about shoplifting? — Susan

Comments on How do you talk to your kids about shoplifting?

  1. We are going through this with our almost five year old and coud also really use some advice.

  2. My brother “accidentally” shoplifted when he was around that age. My parents took him back the next day and had him personally return the item to the store manager. It made a HUGE impression on him, and on me as well. I don’t think there’s a point where it’s “too late” to return the item, even if it’s hours later or the next weekend or the next week.

    • this i feel is the best way. i taught my son at 2yrs when he took a bag of gummi bears from the gas station, i made him take them back and had him apoligize then he paid for them, we were regulars at the store so they would have let him get away with it but now he deffinatly asks for things and makes sure we go to pay

    • My mom always told me a story about her mom making her return a piece of candy she had taken. The shame of the incident stuck with her her entire life, and ensured that she never wanted to shoplift again.

    • I did the very same thing with my daughter about a year ago. She ate some grapes from the produce section. I explained why stealing is wrong and made her tell the checker what happened. She then paid for the grapes. I remember taking a piece of gum when I was 5ish, my parents did the same thing, I never shoplifted again.

  3. I totally got busted for shoplifting when I was 5, and have very clear memories of getting busted and having to go back to the store to return what I’d stolen. OH THE SHAME. Very effective.

    • Yes I shoplifted a giant yellow button when I was about 4. I only made it to the car when my mom found and took be back. She apologized but I was so embarrassed the peer pressure of my friends wasn’t enough to make me do it 10 years later!

  4. If you’re going to return to the store, I’d advise speaking first with the manager to ensure you and your kid get the proper reaction. I shoplifted some candy when I was about 8 and my dad made me return it to the cashier. We were met with a confused, then “who cares, go away” reaction that left me feeling like I could get away with it because nobody really cared. I think if the person I returned the item to had acted stern and put some fear into me, I might have got a better lesson out of the experience.

    • A freind of mine was at the mall and his son took a t-shirt out of a store because he thought things were paid for all together. They went back to return it, and the manager said he could not take back stolen merchandise, nor could they pay for it. Again, because it was stolen. He just didn’t want to deal with it I guess. So they pretty much HAD to go home with the stolen t-shirt. What?!

  5. In that situation I think would give the little girl the benefit of the doubt (maybe it DID fall into her pocket, or she put it in absent-mindedly, who knows?) but still take her to return it.
    After all, even if it was an accident, we don’t keep things we didn’t pay for.

  6. i had a similar exp with my 5 yr old daughter. so i took her to the police station (i called ahead and asked if it was ok first) and had an officer speak to her. He was very understanding, yet firm and it worked fantastic!!!

    • My husband is a police officer and hates it when people do this – he feels that it isn’t his job to parent for others, and a lot of people in our area use it as a first resort instead of a last resort. The police are more than willing to have these discussions with kids, but PLEASE talk to your kiddos first!

  7. I agree, before you make kiddo take stuff back, talk to the manager. The last thing you want is a manager who reacts poorly confusing the situation. I once had a kid return some shoes he stole from his school and the school secretary gave him a lolli for being honest. Opposite of what I wanted, obviously.

    • When I was 5, I stole an address book (it had a kitty on the cover! and my mom said I couldn’t have it because 5yo’s don’t need address books but IT HAD A KITTY ON THE COVER), so my mom made me take it back. The result? I got a balloon. Needless to say, I didn’t stop stealing stuff. For years.

  8. I agree with making the child return the item. My mother did this when I took a can of spaghetti-o’s from the supermarket because she wouldn’t buy them for me. It didn’t really occur to me at the time that I was stealing, but even though it was ‘just spaghetti-o’s,’ my mom put me back in the car and had me return it to the manager and apologize. Lesson definitely learned!

  9. I accidentally shoplifted when I was about 7 or 8. And truly accidentally! I was at a toy shop with my mom and sisters, and I saw a cute keychain and started playing with it. But I wanted to show my mom, so I held onto it. I ended up forgetting about it, and realized on the drive home that I was still holding the keychain UNPAID FOR. When we got home I went straight into my room, threw out the keychain (hid it in the garbage), and then promptly cried about how terrible I was. My parents never knew.

    But I knew stealing was wrong already.

    I would probably do what the others have said they experienced. Take her back to the store and make her return the nail polish to the store manager. It’s honestly not to late to do that. You don’t have to tell the manager when it was taken. Just that it was taken.

    If the polish has been opened, I would throw it out (allowing her to keep it is like a reward), and have another clear discussion on stealing. Maybe use the word “stealing” to get your point across?

  10. If she knew to hide what she had done, she knew it was wrong.

    My son stole a pack of tic-tacs from a store one time when he was about 4 years old. I had told him he couldn’t have them, but when I was busy getting things checked in, he took them. He tried to hide it from me, but when I found them I got angry took them from him, went inside and paid for them. He got a time out for doing something he knew wasn’t right and for lying to me and I also explained to him why stealing is wrong.

    I’m a firm believer that kids need consequences for their actions, otherwise they have no reason not to repeat bad behaviour.

  11. About 5.5-6 seems to be the age this hits (at least it was with my son). We made him go back the next day, return it to the customer service dept and apologize. He hasn’t taken anything from a store since then. However, he keeps coming from from school with things he’s “found”. Not staying he’s taken them from other kids, but also not sure he hasn’t. We have him take them back and give them to the teacher (and follow up with her that this has happened). All of this comes with regular discussions about what stealing is, why it’s not okay, and how others feel when we take their things. It’s an ongoing process, I think. At least it is at our house! Good luck!!!

  12. WOW this brings back my VIVID memory of stealing. I was 6 and I was with my mom at her friend’s house. They had a toddler who had the coolest toys, including a tiny bunny who hopped when you pulled the string. This bunny made its way into my pocket and stayed there until we were driving home and my mom saw me playing with it. My mom was not sympathetic, she made it very clear that I had taken something that wasn’t mine, I had stolen. She wasn’t convinced by my explanation. I actually remember scrambling to explain that we were playing a game where we were putting things in our pockets and I forgot to take the bunny out of my pocket. Ha.
    Anyway she took me back to their house the next morning, I had to go to the door by myself and hand the bunny back. I apologized, my mom’s friend was warm and forgiving (probably holding back giggles), and I felt SO SO much better after the guilty weight was lifted. And I never did it again! I recommend a similar course of action… I also agree with a previous commenter who suggested speaking with the manager beforehand so they understand this is a life lesson moment.

  13. Just wanted to second (or third, or whatever) the great suggestion to contact the manager/customer service department before you take your child back to ensure a response that you desire. I was a manager at Hot Topic for quite a while, and there are so many things that scream “I’m so fun and tiny! Put me in your pocket, little kid!” that stealing is pretty much inevitable. When parents would bring their kids back in to give back the merchandise and apologize, I always felt like I was walking on eggshells — do I act stern with the child and risk having the parent think I’m being a bitch? Do I say “Oh, it’s okay, thank you for bringing it back” and risk the child thinking that stealing isn’t wrong? Do I give a lecture about stealing and step on the parents’ toes? It’s super awkward, I don’t feel like I ever did quite the “right” thing. If a parent had spoken to me briefly beforehand and told me what they would like me to say, it would have been SO MUCH EASIER and probably much more effective.

    • It’s a tough one, when I’m not learning to be a teacher I’m a supervisor casheir and I’ve had to do that before. I take the thanks for your honesty, but what you did wasn’t okay approach.
      The dialogue goes something like this:
      ” You are very brave coming to me today to tell me what you’ve done, and I really appreciate your honesty. It doesn’t excuse the choice you made, though. Taking something that isn’t yours without asking or paying for it is stealing, and it is never okay”

  14. I am another one that agrees with taking it back to the manager, even if it is a day or two later.

    When I was around 5 I attempted to shoplift the padlock and keys off a suitcase at J C Penny of all things. I did and still do have a thing for keys, and it was a cool lock. My mom caught me putting it in my pocket. She took me to the first sales associate she saw. She made me give it back and apologize. Looking back now I know that the gal was trying not to laugh her butt off, but she asked my mom if she needed to get the store manager or call the cops. I had a meltdown. Promising never to steal or be bad again.

    Shaming a child isn’t always the best course of action, but most of the time it does work. And it works very well.

    • No offense to “little you,” but I did LOL at the sales clerk asking if she needed to call the police on you, the five-year-old 😉 . Tee hee, well played, sales clerk.

  15. I really do believe she probably knew it wasn’t hers and she really wanted it. However, there are 2 things that can happen if you take her back to the store….they won’t care or they will completely overreact (which yes I have seen with my own eyes this happening and the cops called and the child taken down to the police station in cuffs – all because it was ‘protocol’ – I have seen it happen because I worked in retail, some stores will go overboard even if the kid and parent is trying to be honest and make amend – and then the parent was stuck with going to court and police and sorting out a huge mess over stuff that happens a lot – not saying it is right, but it is a common occurrence)

    If it was me, I’d take the item away, and then have them work and make money to pay for it. My 5 year old is perfectly capable of dusting, cleaning windows, taking care of the pets or what have you until they work to get it back. If they don’t want to work, then they don’t get it back. I am not going to be able to control how someone else acts, and I would not want someone to overreact, scream, arrest my child. Yes it is wrong, and yes something should happen, but I have seen things turn out very badly on the other side, so I would handle it for now.

  16. We have been through this with my foster child. She is only four but knows and understands about jail. She know that you go to jail when you do things that are wrong.
    She developed a habit of picking up things at my moms house. My sisters hairbows, the first couple of times i just took them away and gave them back later but when she started saying oops oh well, i can play with that till tomorrow, I decided that we should fix the problem.
    That night we talked about stealing and what happens when you steal (make people sad and if you are a grown up you go to jail) The next time i caught her with a stolen item. I made her go back to the person and say ” Im sorry. I took this with out asking. I’m sorry i didn’t mean to take it away.”
    We are still working through this phase but at least we are starting to understand why we shouldn’t steal.

  17. I have a really vivid memory of a cookie monster figurine from when i was a kid. My neighbor and I could not remember who it belonged to so we kept stealing it back from each other for about 3 years.

  18. This was a pretty harsh reaction on my parents’ part, but when I was a kid, I repeatedly stole (and frequently got caught stealing) candy from the grocery store. After the third offense or so, my parents drew the line- I did not get sweets of any kind for a year. Left a huge impression, and definitely helped me realize that stealing is a BIG DEAL. Don’t know if it would work in all situations, but it worked for me.

  19. I work at a kitchen and gift store where there is quite a bit of this sort of situation because firstly, it’s the kind of place where mothers shop, secondly, some things are small, bright and happy looking…third, I work by myself most of the time and as a consequence of being distracted by other customers, there is a fair amount of adult and child (4,5,6 yo) theft. I am personally totally okay with parents bringing something back hours or a day later. About half of them tell the child to apologise, and it usually ends in tears no matter what I say. I’ve never said “oh don’t worry it doesn’t matter” but I’ve never reacted with anger, either. Do explain to the assistant what is going on, and also say something yourself rather than leaving it between the child and assistant- frankly that’s really awkward and of course the kid is going to be scared to tears.
    Cutest anecdote: a little boy went into hysterics after being made to apologise to me, it turned out he recognised the MasterChef sponsor logo on my uniform apron and thought I would tell the people on MasterChef that he shouldn’t be allowed to be on the show ever.

  20. This post and thread has been mini therapy for me. I feel absolved of my petty larceny. I stole a keychain of a pig dressed as a chef that said “Pig Out” when I was 7. My friends outed me. I had to personally return it, and I was embarrassed and ashamed. I went through my First Communion a short while later and was supposed to confess this sin. Yea, I didn’t. But lied and said I did. Oh, the shame! Clearly it made an impression.

    • I was terrible under the age of eight, but was never caught. I had this awful habit of stealing (little) things like chocolates or stickers or once it was a piece of soap with a novelty spider on the inside…I did it with the aim of giving them to family members for Christmas/Easter/birthdays but always realised too late that since I had no money it would be obvious I stole them-then I’d have to hide them. It never turned in to a life-long habit but I feel really bad about it fifteen years on!

  21. After much experience as a child educator, and now having a degree in child development and a certificate as a Montessori Educator, I have found and read much research that says Kids need consequences that are directly related to their behavior. This eliminates the effectiveness of a time out in this scenario especially. Taking the child back to the store, any amount of time later, is a direct correlation to the inappropriate behavior. A child under six will not be able to internalize an explanation for such behavior, and need the type of experience that so many people in this thread have commented that impacted their lives from that point onward.

  22. All these suggestions sound good to me. I’d also say have a talk with your niece about it – eighteen is still pretty young and even if she’s a mature, responsible kid, this is something that’s tricky to deal with. Maybe sit down with her and talk about how you’d like her to handle this if it comes up again while you’re not around? That way if it happens again and she catches your daughter in the act, she’ll be confident knowing she’s reacting in the way that helps you most.

  23. I work in a shop in the mall, and just this week I dealt with a customer whose young daughter was holding a pack of (stolen) hair clips. After telling her that they weren’t sold in our store, but that X store in the mall supplied them, she turned to her daughter and said they needed to go back to that store. I thought little of it until I overheard her reassuring her daughter that she would pay for them. Thus, her daughter was rewarded for her shoplifting by getting to keep the hair clips.
    I feel like this probably happens often- the parent purchases the previously stolen item- but what does that teach the child? Return the item or at least don’t allow the child to keep it her/himself.

  24. I shopped lifted once age 3. I don’t believe I understood the concept of shopping and money. I shop lifted a dog collar from a local general store we often went to in Montana. The little old couple that owned it loved me. My parents discovered that I had sold the collar upon me trying to squish my dog into a small collar and they asked where I got the collar; I explained that I had taken it and they explained shopping and purchasing things, they took me to return my merchandise and I was crying so ashamed. I apologized and the owners told me that is was an honest mistake. The impression it left was permanent and I have never even thought about stealing since. I hope that technique works as well if the need arises with my daughter. It was loving correction tied to a real experience.

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