Q: My 11-year-old son steals, but not at the store. He steals money and takes food sometimes. His reasoning: “I just wanted it.” Do you have any perspective? We have tried everything we can think of as a normal Latter-day Saint family. No big underlying issues. We attend church regularly. We’re far from fault, but pretty normal. What do we do? Any insight would be appreciated.
A: Ahhhh, parenthood. It really is non-stop fun, isn’t it? I understand what you’re going through in a very immediate way. It seems that every family is blessed with at least one kleptomaniac to learn and grow from. I use that term dryly, not clinically, because for most children it is absolutely under their control. Still, it can be maddening for a parent, whether the child steals from the family or from a store, especially if he or she seems (or is) unrepentant.
The first thing to recognize is that as children grow and develop they naturally test boundaries. It’s part of figuring out how the world works and exploring possible identities for themselves. It takes different forms for different children, but unfortunately stealing is common. That doesn’t mean it’s right, of course, and part of all of our journey from the age of accountability up is to learn to overcome our natural urges to do what is morally right (see Mosiah 3:19).
The next thing to keep in mind is what is your responsibility and what is not. It is not your responsibility to produce a specific outcome. It is not your role to ensure proper behavior. Trying to force a child to do right will likely lead to rebellion, if not now then later. Your role, as laid out by the Lord Himself, is to teach your children right and wrong:
“Inasmuch as parents have children in Zion . . . and teach them not to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost . . . the sin be upon the heads of the parents” (Doctrine and Covenants 68:25).
The simple fact is, no matter how well you teach, no matter how effectively you structure consequences for their actions so that they learn to make good choices, ultimately the child has free will. A third of the Lord’s children rebelled in the premortal existence. Lehi and Sariah had rebellious children. Throughout history, children have made their own choices and parents have taught them and prayed for them, which can lead to the child’s repentance, as in the case of Alma and Alma the Younger.
But what stands the best chance of success in helping your child learn healthy, appropriate behaviors? First of all, pray for them every morning and night. Second of all, teach them the doctrines of the kingdom. In this case “thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:15) is obvious, as is the expectation that the child “restore . . . the thing which he hath deceitfully gotten” (Leviticus 6:4).
What’s most necessary, however, is to answer the question so often posed by children: “Why?” Why do we not steal? The best way to approach this, in my opinion and experience, is to ask the question of your son first instead of lecturing him. If he says “I don’t know,” invite him to think on it and offer an incentive such as, “When you’ve come up with three reasons for not stealing you can have dinner, not before.” Start a conversation about trust. Ask your child why he steals to learn about his motivation and underlying feelings. Study together Richard D. Draper’s excellent 1994 Ensign article “Thou Shalt Not Steal.”
While we do not force our children as Latter-day Saint parents, it is our duty to help our children learn that choices have consequences. Establish unpleasant, but not mean or vicious, consequences with your son for future trespasses. Then follow through with them when he steals. It is best if the consequences feel natural, related to the offense. For example, with stealing a natural consequence may be a loss of trust, manifested by not allowing them to be alone with their friends or leave the house for the weekend. Or it may be the loss of certain privileges that the child enjoys.
Don’t punish. Punishments happen on the fly as a reaction to a child’s behavior. Consequences are planned in advance so that the child knows that by choosing the behavior they are also choosing the consequence. That is how God parents us. He tells us the expectation: the blessings (privileges) that come from obedience and the consequences for disobedience.
God bless you. I hope this helps.