Q: We’ve just been informed that our 7-year-old son has been effectively “expelled” from the private school he attended last year because of repeated instances of stealing small items from classmates and, on one occasion, from the teacher’s desk. We’re rather shocked because our son was the highest-performing student in his first grade class and the school’s administration promised to work with us concerning the problem. Through the school year, he stole at least 20 items from other children, things like pencils, pencil sharpeners, and several of these new toys called “spinners.” He’s an only child and only grandchild who’s been, we regret to say, indulged by both us and both sets of grandparents. We don’t understand how a child who’s been given nearly everything he ever wanted would steal things he could have for the asking. Do you have any insights into this sort of thing and, hopefully, a solution?
A: Paradoxically, many if not most young children who steal from other children fit the profile you described. They are over-indulged, from upper-middle class homes, and often only children.
The question “Why would a child who’s been given nearly everything he ever wanted steal from other children?” answers itself. For the children in question — for whom getting things is routine —there’s no excitement attached to being given something new. The act of stealing provides that thrill. Furthermore, stealing imparts a sense of drama to a transaction that has become dull and predictably easy. Specifically, lots of people, mostly adults, are upset and everyone’s trying to get to the bottom of things.
My first recommendation, therefore, should be obvious: put a lid on the materialistic excess in his life. Getting something new has to become the exception rather than the rule.
It’s unfortunate that the school has decided on expulsion after assuring you that they’d work with you. I imagine their sense of responsibility to parents of your son’s classmates drove their decision to effect a “final solution. There is, however, a silver lining in this otherwise dark cloud. If your son attended a public school, there’s significant likelihood that he’d be referred to a psychologist, diagnosed, and perhaps even medicated for some bogus reason.
One way to stop the stealing, which sounds as if it’s become or in danger of becoming habitual, is to homeschool him for a few years. I’m not talking about isolating him from other children, but simply reducing if not removing the opportunity for the problem to occur. If you homeschool, you should provide him plenty of opportunities for supervised recreational interaction with other kids his age.
If you decide to move him to another school, then you need to prepare yourselves and his new teacher (and principal) for the fact that stealing was a problem in grade one. If and when it occurs again, he’s got to pay a steep price. I’d suggest having him write and deliver an apology to the entire class or something along those lines. That may have to happen several times before the “medicine” takes effect. The success of such an approach depends on a teacher who is affectionate but unemotional and cut-and-dried concerning disciplinary issues. Generally, the older the teacher, the better, but that’s true regardless these days.
Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com, parentguru.com.