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Seven-Year-Old Is Stealing
Q: I caught my 7-year-old taking things that don't belong to her. She has taken a necklace from her grandmother and dolls from her cousins. I punished her by grounding her for a week and demanding that she write, "I'm very sorry. I will never steal again" 100 times. She also had to apologize to the people affected. Did I handle this properly? What else can I do to prevent this from happening again?
A: Your daughter is at an age where she understands that stealing is wrong. There are several reasons why she might be stealing from family members and possibly from non-family members as well. I believe that she didn't take her grandmother's necklace and her cousins' dolls simply because she liked them and wanted them for herself. She is old enough to know that she was doing wrong by stealing these items and that she might get caught. You were right in having her return the stolen items to their owners and to demand that she personally apologize to these family members. These were logical and natural consequences of her stealing. Having her write the 100 sentences of apology is an inappropriate punishment; it serves only to punish, not to discipline and teach.
I would try to discover what is behind your daughter's stealing. My bet is that your child is suffering emotionally at some level, perhaps at an unconscious level that she can not articulate well. Please reaffirm her basic goodness and your unconditional love for her, while you ask her what might be bothering her -- does she need more of your time and attention? Is she jealous of a sibling? Is there something going on within your family that could be troubling her? Is there an ongoing family crisis -- divorce, chronic illness, unemployment? Children at this age often steal from family members as a way to express their confusion about current family dynamics. Her stealing is giving you clues that she needs your understanding and attention about something that is causing her hurt. I know that you will approach this in a non-judgmental manner and give her the compassionate help that she needs.
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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.