Stealing is wrong, and kids need to be taught this from a young age. While punishment after the fact is usually less effective than education if a child does steal, here are some ways that you might be able to help them learn to not do that again.
1: Have Them Return the Stolen Thing
This is the number one best way to ingrain in the child’s mind that stealing is wrong. It’s embarrassing to admit that you stole something, but most people are willing to forgive a child, so they’ll likely be safe from any real consequences. This works best if they stole in a public place like a store or their classroom, and if they have to give the stolen item to a living person.
It can also be effective for kids who are older, since older kids will be able to recognize how the person they stole from feels for having been stolen from. When kids are able to recognize emotions in others and not just embarrassment from themselves, this becomes a more effective way of punishment for when a child has stolen from their peers or family members.
Talk to your child about how bad it felt to have to give back the thing they took, then talk to them about how good it felt for the person they stole from to forgive them. Focusing on the child’s feelings will help the child to understand that stealing is wrong even if they don’t get caught.
Be careful when doing this with a teen who has stolen from a store. Ask the store whether they will press charges first, and then only bring the teen back if the answer is no. Especially if this is the first time the teen has stolen, you don’t want them to start life with that on their record.
There are many situations where the thing a child has stolen may no longer be returnable. For instance, if they stole a candy bar, they may have already started eating it. Having the child return the value of the candy bar in money to the person they stole from can have a similar effect to actually returning the stolen thing.
This is more effective if the child understands money and has a little bit to use. If they don’t, you can have them do a chore they don’t usually do to make the money they need to pay back what they stole.
If they stole a piece of candy from someone, bringing them to the store to buy a replacement could be a part of this punishment. Make it clear that the candy they’re buying is for the person they stole from so that they understand why their money is getting spent.
3: Take Away One of Their Toys (For a Little While)
While this isn’t nearly as effective as making them give back the stolen thing, it may help them to understand how it feels to have something taken away from them. There’s no need to coat this in theatrics—simply tell the child that the punishment for stealing is that they don’t get to have as many things for a little while.
The toy that you take away should be one that seems fair considering what they stole. Ask them which toy is as valuable to them as the thing that they took, and take away that toy, telling them when you’re going to return it. Communicating with your child why this is happening and when it will be over is important for them to understand what you’re trying to teach them.
It should go without saying that you should also return the stolen object if possible, but if you’re doing this punishment, you shouldn’t also make your kid return the stolen thing themselves.
4: Personal Apology
Before an apology can be sincere, the child must understand why it was wrong to steal and how it affects and hurts other people. Discuss the value of honesty and who is hurt when we are dishonest or steal. Help them to think about what the world would be like if people all stole from each other, and how the child would feel if someone stole from them.
When the child has a better understanding, help them to do all they can to right their wrong, apologize for what they did, and never do it again. In most situations, the child can return the stolen item. Help them to write a note or draw a picture and sign their name that they are sorry. The child can deliver the apology note and the stolen item and apologize in person to the person they stole from.
5: Lend Something of the Child’s to the Person They Stole From
If your child stole a toy from one of their friends, along with returning the toy, you might also make your child lend something of their own to them for a little while. You can frame this punishment as paying back the friend for the time when they couldn’t have the thing that was stolen from them.
Make sure that you don’t lend the toy for longer than the stolen thing was kept, and that both kids understand that the toy you’re lending should be returned at the end of the amount of time it’s being borrowed for. Consider getting the parents of the other child involved as well so they understand where the toy came from and when it should be returned.
This is most effective for older kids who understand the concept of borrowing.
6: Donate the Stolen Thing
If for some reason the item can’t be returned, try donating it to someone who actually needs it. Your child could give the item to a friend or neighbor. It could be given to another child leaving the store. Regardless of who it goes to, help the child think of how to do a kind act for someone else.
If you need to, you can also make your child donate their own money equal to the value of the stolen object to a reputable charity or church, or other organizations, such as Goodwill, Deseret Industries, or the Arc. Look up stores and locations near you.
This can also be a great opportunity to teach your child how our actions can have positive consequences as well. They can learn about nonprofit organizations explained in a way they will understand. Afterward, you can see if they have any other toys or things that they would like to donate for other kids in need.