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Punish child for stealing


Published: Sat, September 3, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.


Q. Two years ago, we adopted an intelligent, creative, outgoing 4-year-old girl. The one and only problem we're having with her is she steals from us. Jewelry, money, you name it. Whatever she can lay her hands on disappears. When we confront her, she always denies having taken the item in question.
When it shows up later among her possessions, as it always does, she claims to not know how it got there. A therapist we consulted said the problem was symptomatic of "unresolved attachment issues" and that punishing her would only make matters worse. What do you think?
A. The notion that your daughter's stealing stems from "unresolved attachment issues" can be neither proved nor disproved. Neither, therefore, can the statement that punishing her will make matters worse.
Stealing is anti-social. That's a fact, not a theory. And so far, well-intentioned social liberals have yet to come up with a response to anti-social behavior that's more generally effective than punishment. Therefore, I'm going to recommend that you punish your daughter for stealing, but benignly so.
Since stealing deprives people of privilege and property, it makes perfect sense to deprive her of privilege and property when she steals.
I'll just bet that whenever she steals something, a family soap opera -- call it "Uproar" -- ensues in which she becomes the focus of lots of attention and energy. Mind you, this may not explain her stealing; nonetheless, you need to begin responding to the problem such that (a) "Uproar" is canceled and (b) stealing causes your daughter more problems than it does the two of you.
What to do
Put a "Missing Things" list on the refrigerator. When you discover something missing, act nonchalant. Don't even ask her if she has the item in question. Just put it on the list. Then, make a rule: As long as there's even one item on the list, your daughter can't participate in any after-school activities, go to friend's houses, have friends over and you, furthermore, will not buy her anything except things that are absolutely essential.
Put a "Returns" box in the back hall or some other relatively inconspicuous place and inform her that when the item (or items) on the list shows up in the box, her privileges will be restored. This allows her to atone without a big deal being made of it.
It's of utmost importance that you deprive the problem of the energy off which it feeds. If, while her life is "suspended," she protests her innocence, just say, "We're not going to talk about it. The rule is the rule."
Likewise, when a missing something shows up in the box, just cross it off the list without fanfare. This is not, mind you, a quick fix. Nonetheless, my experience has been that this method slowly but surely causes (or allows) a child's stealing to die a natural death, but the operative word is "slowly." The good news is that you should be able to "capture" the problem before it spills out of the family and into the social arena.
XJohn Rosemond is a family psychologist. Questions of general interest may be sent to him at Affirmative Parenting, 1020 E. 86th St., Suite 26B, Indianapolis, IN 46240 and at his Web site: www.rosemond.com/.


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