:I am really worried about my 8-year-old son. He recently came home with a new Pokemon card stashed in his pant’s pocket. When I saw that he was trying to hide something, I asked him what it was. After considerable questioning he told me that he had taken if from his friend. This, I totally don’t understand. Even though I am not crazy about Pokemon, he has almost the full set and an adequate allowance to buy whatever he wants. Why would he steal?
I told him that he would have to give it back. I was horrified, and he was scared and upset. I told him that he could either chose to give it back in person or he could write a note and deliver it. I also suggested that he might want to send another card along with the first card, as an apology. He went to his room and chose three of his best cards. I told him he only needed to send one. He wrote a note, enclosed the two cards and I drove him over to his friend’s house. He handed it to his friend and ran. The friend wrote a note back giving my son the “stolen” card and suggested that next time if he wanted to trade, he could just ask.
I’m so terrified that he is going to turn into a thief. Honesty is so important to me and I want to be sure that I am doing the right thing to teach it. Have any ideas for me?
Your response to this challenging situation seems very successful. You used “natural consequences” to help your son understand how important honesty is to you and how important it is to rectify a situation when you make a mistake. You also provided the support he needed so he could follow through without being devastated with guilt, by allowing him to write his apology and send an apology gift.
While we can sometimes laugh off the antics and testing of younger children, when we catch an older child “stealing,” all of a sudden something switches and we, as parents, can feel terrified. It is wonderful that you were able to suspend your terror enough to help your son through the situation.
Children in the middle years are working on their moral development. They are asking questions such as, “What is right and what is wrong?” ” What makes one thing right and another thing wrong?” “Are wrong things wrong in all situations or just in some?” Kids are trying to figure out these complicated ideas and they have several ways to explore them.
Kids are trying to figure out situational ethics. “It is clearly wrong to swear with my grandma, who gets so upset, but is it wrong to swear with my friends who think it is funny?”
Kids take a very literal view of morality. “It is wrong to hit someone or call them names because it makes them cry, but are you wrong when you tell someone else to call somebody a name? After all, you weren’t the one to do it.”
Kids wonder if it is the act itself or getting caught that makes something wrong. “It is wrong to grab someone’s Pokemon card out of their hand, but is it wrong to sneak one when they aren’t looking?” If they don’t ever find out if you took it, is it still wrong? If you don’t get in trouble for it, is it still wrong?
The answers to these questions seem obvious to most adults, but kids in the middle years are trying to figure out what exactly makes something wrong. We have an important role in helping children figure out answers to these questions. It is normal and healthy that they would ask them and that they would experiment to discover the answers themselves. So, our responses to their trials need to be clear, informative and empathetic.
. Share with your child how you view honesty and trust. Even though our children seem unimpressed or uninterested in what we think, they are still very influenced by our values and views. Without being punitive or shaming, you can:
. explain to your child that honesty is very important to you; that you want to be able to trust everything he tells you.
. let him know how trust works; that when he doesn’t tell you the truth once, you start questioning everything he tells you or if he takes something from someone, they may have a hard time trusting him with their things after that.
. explain to him that even though it is hard to tell the truth sometimes, you would much rather hear the truth than something dishonest-even if you get mad about the truth.
. remind him that he is a very important person to you and that you really want to be able to trust everything he says, without question. . Help your child think about what he is trying to do by stealing. Your child doesn’t always understand why he is stealing. Often, children steal because they can’t think of another way to get what they want. But that is not the only reason kids might steal. They may also want to see if they will get caught. “Just how does the security system work here? Am I smarter than it is?” They might steal something from an admired friend to get closer to that friend-like having a part of the friend with them. They also might be stealing or lying to explore the moral questions mentioned above.
. Provide alternative ways for your child to acquire the things he covets. If you discover that your child really wanted something and couldn’t figure out how to get it, you can explore alternate ways with him to get what he wants. Could he earn the money to buy it? Could he ask his friend to trade with him? Could he make a list of the things he would like most for his next birthday? If you and he figure out that he took it because he wanted to have something that belonged to his friend, you can discuss alternate ways to feel close to his friend. If it seems he was exploring the moral questions like, “Is it wrong if nobody finds out?” think with him about how he might have felt if he had taken it and nobody found out. Would he feel all right about that? Would you?
. Allow your child to make amends or to rectify the situation. One of the most important outcomes of stealing or lying is how the child feels about himself afterwards. It is important that he knows that he made a serious mistake. It is equally important that he doesn’t see himself as a “thief” or “liar.” Making amends, apologizing, giving things back are all important steps in the process of learning that you are a person who made a mistake rather than a “bad person.” Writing apology notes, taking things back to the person or the store, saying you are sorry are all useful ways of rectifying the situation. Earning the money to pay back or replace what you took can also help.
. Include your child in the solution. Engage your child’s ideas for ways to make amends can help him feel connected to the consequence. “What do you think we should do about the Pokemon card you took?” “What would you like a friend to do if he took something of yours?” Keep thinking up ideas together until you come up with one both of you can agree on. Usually, just participating in the solution is enough of a consequence to teach your child a lesson. Sometimes we feel the need to heap punishment on top of the natural consequence, but most times, children will learn plenty from the natural follow-through and from hearing you talk about your faith in honesty. Remind your son that we all make mistakes, and that the most important thing is that he is learning how to be a trustworthy person, even as he makes mistakes.
. Make a plan for next time. It can be useful to talk with your son about what he might do the next time he feels like he really wants something that is not his. What else could he do besides take it? If he has thought ahead of time about alternatives, he will feel more empowered to use his best judgement.