You won’t scar him for life by taking him to his teacher. But how the adults in his life (you, your husband, and the teacher) deal with the problem could. It’s important that you handle this problem with all the restraint and calm you can find. Labeling him as a “thief” at his young age could seriously backfire on you. You don’t want him to start to see himself as incurably flawed.
Yes, he is taking things that don’t belong to him. But he’s not a hardened criminal. He’s a kid and he needs guidance, not name-calling.
Since you don’t report other kinds of misbehavior, it’s unlikely that your son has conduct disorder. If that were the case, there would generally be additional troubling behaviors as well.
When stealing occurs by itself in someone this young, it’s important to figure out what is behind it. Some kids steal to “buy” friends, either by giving them items or by trying to impress. Some kids steal as a way to get even. Some are put up to it by peer pressure. Some are copying other people they admire or think are “cool.” Others live down to the expectations of adults who’ve already decided that they are the bad kids.
You said that he has promised not to do it again. But have you gently asked him why he is doing it in the first place? You are more likely to get a useful answer if you ask in a way that simply expresses your keen disappointment and worry. Lectures, scolding, and threats of punishment will only make him defensive and unwilling to share what is going on with him. Stay matter-of-fact and concerned in your tone. Be careful not to overreact. Give him room to open up.
If what you discover sounds sincere, you will want to work on finding ways to respond to the underlying need as well as ways to deal with the stealing. If, for example, he is trying to be “cool,” you’ll want to help him find legitimate ways to fit in.
At the same time, you do need to have a consequence to the stealing that matters to him. Calmly ask him what he thinks you should do when you know he has taken something that isn’t his. Most kids don’t expect this question. Often they come up with far worse punishments that we adults would impose. If so, suggest that he may be being extreme but that certainly something needs to be done.
Come up with a consequence that is clear, non-negotiable, and certain. One example is for you to accompany him to give the item back along with some sort of restitution. (If that is what you decide to do, it is again important that you stay in the background and do minimal talking. It’s important that he take responsibility for himself, not you.)
I think moral issues like this one are among the hardest for parents to deal with. Please remember that he is still forming his idea of morality and testing out how clear you and his dad are about right and wrong. That message is far more impressive when parents are consistent and factual about it and make their expectations very, very clear.
I hope this is a bit helpful.
I wish you well.
This article has been updated from the original version, which was originally published here on October 4, 2010.