What NOT to say if your elementary-age child experiments with stealing (and what to say instead)

Your child stole something and you found out. You are simultaneously embarrassed, shocked, and worried that you've failed to install a sense of morality in your child.

It seems like it's time for a nice long lecture about how he's broken your trust and will now have to go to great lengths to earn it back, right?

Not necessarily.

Put yourself in a child's shoes for a moment. Your immature brain is still impulsive, and the neural pathways that allow adult brains to consider potential consequences and then inhibit a behavior that is motivated by a strong desire are not yet consistently well-connected. You see something you want really bad. You look around quickly to see if anyone will notice, then you grab it and hide it. Somehow, an adult finds out. When confronted, you deny or lie, terrified of the potential consequences.

Let's say the person who finds out is your mother. (We all knows moms find out EVERYTHING eventually, right? Probably because they have those eyes in the back of their heads...)

Imagine how you might feel as a child in these two scenarios:

In Scenario One, your mom says:

I am so upset that you did this! Didn't I teach you that stealing is wrong? You've embarrassed your family -- what will people think of us? I trusted you to know better than to do something like this. How can I trust you now? I will have to watch you every minute. You can't go to anyone's house after school for at least a month. You will have to come straight home where I can keep an eye on you. You're going to have to work hard to earn my trust back, and it's going to take a long time. There are going to be some SERIOUS consequences for you, young man. I am very disappointed in you.

How do you feel about yourself after this interaction?

How do you feel about your mother and your connection with her?

Do you feel empowered to fix your mistake, or paralyzed with shame?

Please really sit with these questions for a moment, and feel your responses on an emotional level.

In Scenario Two, your mom says:

Wow. I'm so surprised that this happened. I know you've heard your dad and I talk on and on about the importance of respect and honesty, and we do our best to live our lives as a good example of how to treat people around us. Please tell me about what happened.

After you explain, she continues:

Who do you think was impacted by this theft, and how were they affected?

If the only person you can identify as being impacted is the person you stole from, she helps you come up with more ideas by asking questions like, "How about the other kids in your school -- how could they be affected? How about your family? Your teachers? How about you - how does this affect you? Who else might have feelings about what happened? How might you feel if this happened to you, or to someone you care alot about?"

She's in no hurry, and doesn't ask these all at once. She stays calm and warm, maybe even gently pulls you close or lets you sit on her lap, and gives you plenty of time to consider the questions deeply. If any of the answers make you cry, she quietly acknowledges the pain of remorse, and gently comforts you without letting you off the hook or minimizing what you've done. Finally, she asks:

How can you make it up to the people who were affected? What do you think might help them feel like their things will be safe around you again?

How do you feel about yourself after this interaction?

How do you feel about your mother and your connection with her?

Do you feel empowered to fix your mistake, or paralyzed with shame?

We do our children no favors when we tell them they have to re-gain our trust. Trust is such an abstract and nebulous concept that more often than not kids end up feeling powerless and hopeless that they'll ever get it back, even if you carefully map out the steps to doing so. Feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness are not typically conducive to the best thinking or behavior.

In fact, it's not a big leap for a child to decide that since you've made it quite clear that you no longer trust him anyway, and it's going to be a long, hard road to earn it back, he might as well go for instant gratification and continue to steal or lie.

Children who feel connected to their parents and supported in their efforts to correct their mistakes and miscalculations don't feel powerless or hopeless. They might feel guilt or remorse, but that's an appropriate emotional response when we hurt someone. They learn that actions have consequences, that they can and will be held accountable for making amends when they cause harm, and that forgiveness happens.

Trust is kind of a silly concept, if you ask me. It's simply not wise to trust a school-age child's immature brain to consistently inhibit his strong impulses any more than you'd trust a toddler not to run into the street. For that matter, how many adults cheat on their diets, spouses, or taxes?

Trust is, in some ways, a setup -- a rather bizarre, ungrounded concept that places unrealistically high expectations on imperfect beings. It's also a bit of a cop out, I think, because it lets us become lazy and inattentive. If I trust my child to obey me all the time, I might not watch him as closely as I should around bodies of water. If I trust my teen not to drink, I might store alcohol in places that make a momentary lapse of judgment fatal.

So if you really want to trust in something, how about trusting that people of all ages will mess up sometimes? Then you can focus on doing your best to take full responsibility for minimizing the risks and consequences that are under your control, for example, by making sure to keep your kids in view when visiting friends who have a pool in their backyard, or storing your alcohol in a locked cabinet.

To help kids learn good citizenship, parents need to model appropriate behavior, supervise them to prevent them from facing overwhelming temptation without support, connect and communicate with them, and help them learn how to repair any damage or relationship rifts that happen as a result of their inevitable mistakes.

For more information about Karen's parenting or interpersonal communication consultations by phone, visit www.karenalonge.com

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