I distinctly remember stealing a packet of PK chewing gum when I was about four years old. Glistening on the shelf in its silvery packaging, it was calling out to me, irresistible and available. After some whispered consultation with my friend and crime partner, we decided it could easily slip unnoticed into one of our pockets. We left the shop, hearts racing, adrenalin pumping, knowing that what we'd done was incredibly wrong, comforted by the knowledge we'd escaped capture. That was until my older sister dobbed (damn those responsible, conscionable first-borns!) - and that was even after we bribed her not to say anything by giving her some of the gum.
Marched back up to the milkbar by my mum, I was made to pay the shop back out of my pocket money. Coupled with the added expense of public humiliation via an apology to the shop owner, as well as the subsequent parental disappointment, I didn’t steal again. Whether that's because I learnt a lesson or lost my criminal courage, I’m not sure.
Now a parent, it's my turn for a stealing initiation. One of my children, who happened to be about the same age I had been when first lured by light fingers, pocketed a chocolate from the shelf in the supermarket while I was chatting to another mum. It wasn’t discovered until later, in the middle of a doctor’s appointment, where the rather large bulge in his pocket looked remarkably conspicuous. Upon questioning the source of this chocolate, he shrugged, feigning ignorance, as though I would believe a chocolate could miraculously appear in my preschooler’s clothing without him knowing how it arrived there.
At home, confiscation of the half-eaten chocolate and further intensive questioning revealed the item had indeed been swiped off the shelf. He sat in his room howling, awaiting his fate. I conferred with my husband about the course of action and appropriate punishment.
“All kids steal at some point,” I reasoned.
“I never did. He must get it from you,” was my perfect husband’s reply.
OK, so clearly I’d passed on the thief gene then.
We decided to have a serious chat about wrong and right, consequences and punishment with the boy. His achievement of nine on his “star chart” (where at 10 you get a prize) was dropped back to zero. He was given a clear instruction on paying for things and what happens when you take something that doesn't belong to you.
When he went to bed that evening, I spoke to him about how it feels in your tummy when you do something wrong – trying to get him to recognise our old friend, conscience. He knew it was dishonest, which is why he went to great lengths to hide it. And he told me it felt “really, really bad” in his tummy when he thought about what he’d done.
In reality, he was four, it was there, too tempting to resist, and his mother was distracted. A boundary to test; an opportunity to seize; a chocolate to eat. Not rocket science, not criminal intent, just a child. He was punished and felt appropriate remorse for his actions.
It's years since that incident and we haven't had another display of kleptomania. In fact, if the story is referred to at all, the child is mightily distressed, forever tarnished by his brush with the heavy hand of the law. I think he’ll eventually become a lawyer offering widespread pro bono work just to emphasise his morality.
Most people I know can relay a story where they nicked something. Perhaps it was a Barbie outfit from a friend that was accidentally pocketed whilst helping clean her room. Okay, that was me, again ... but it was such a cool outfit and ours were all so 1980! Don’t alarm yourself, there is no real pattern here.
It's also happened to a friend. After visiting a department store with her child, she noticed a pair of shoes four times too big on her daughter's feet. It seems her two-year-old had tried the shoes on while sitting in the pram, and mum hadn’t noticed - and neither did security on the way out. She was mortified, and her profound embarrassment had her donating the shoes to charity rather than returning them to the shop.
Clearly a toddler has no idea about stealing in terms of legal matters; in their mind, possession is nine-tenths of the law. By four, they know what they're doing is wrong – psychologists would refer to these as “teachable moments”, opportunities to reiterate the rules and to emphasise social norms.
Pernicious, long lasting effects of a singular sticky-fingered episode are unlikely. Stealing in childhood doesn't automatically make a criminal, unless the problem is ongoing and devoid of remorse. Of course, if they start torturing cats and lighting fires, you may have some more profound issues to address.
Has your child ever stolen anything? How old were they, and how did you handle it? Comment below or in the Essential Baby forum.