How We Handled Our 6 Year Old Stealing a Toy from a Store

Last week, my husband and I were sitting in a PTO meeting at my six-year-old daughter’s school while she was down the hall playing with friends. I was digging for something in my bag and felt something weird in her coat as I tried to move it out of my way. When I checked her pocket, I found a snowy owl toy inside. You wouldn’t think this would be cause for concern, except… Except for the fact that a couple of weeks ago, we’d been at the store looking at a display of a bunch little animal toys, and as my husband and I walked away with our daughter behind us, something made me spin around and look at her. I quietly said to my husband, “She just pocketed one of those.” He politely responded that I was insane, and we kept shopping and I forgot about it. But Lord help us, I was right: I’m raising a tiny thief.

We made it through the rest of the PTO meeting, and then we had a brief discussion in which we agreed that we were obviously driving right over to the store where our daughter would tell the staff what she had done, apologize, and give the item back. We picked up our daughter, headed to the car, got everyone buckled in, and then got down to business. Because I am usually the heavy (hey, everybody’s got to parent to their strengths!) and I was ready to come down hard on this one, we had decided my husband would take the lead. He set the owl on the arm rest between our seats and asked our daughter if she’d like to tell us how it came to be in her coat pocket. Silence. He said, “Well, let me tell you what we think happened,” and explained that we thought she took it without paying for it. He then asked, “Why did you think that was okay to do?” and she wailed, “I DON’T KNOW,” before going silent. He calmly told her that we were driving to the store where she was going to explain to them what she had done, give the toy back, and apologize. We would go with her and support her, but we would not help her, and we would stay at the store as long as it took for her to get through this on her own. It occurred to me that this could go very badly if we got a jerk employee, but I decided to stay optimistic (because seriously, it’s a kid and a small plastic toy, and we’re there to make it right, so while you could be awful to a mini shoplifter—or her parents—Store Employee, let’s all work together to try to raise good citizens).

When it came down to it, my daughter spoke audibly, admitted what she’d done, and sincerely apologized, all without crying. Fortunately, the manager we dealt with was very kind, and even thanked her for coming back to make things right.

As we drove home, my husband and I told our daughter that this was very serious, and that there would be a consequence for stealing, but we weren’t sure yet what it would be. I was iffy about hanging that over her head, but it also felt wrong to let her think that this over and done with and then nail her with a consequence out of the blue. When we were having goodnight snuggles, I hugged her and told her while I was disappointed in the choice that she made, I was proud of her for being brave and making it right. And of course, we both made sure to tell her that we loved her.

Mother and daughter having a serious talk

When my husband and I talked about what might be an appropriate consequence for theft (because, somehow, “losing screen time” just didn’t seem impactful enough), here are some things we considered:

  • While what was running through my heart were thoughts like “She’s six! What in the world could I have possibly done so wrong that she’s already stealing?!” “What is wrong with her? Why did she think this is okay?!” “Why did she do this?!” and “She goes to Sunday School! She’s learned about the Ten Commandments! One of them says not to steal! God will smite you for this shit! What more do you need to motivate you to toe the line?!”, I knew in my head that a minor theft like a $6.00 plastic toy is totally and completely developmentally normal. Which meant that whatever we said and did, and the consequence we decided on, needed to reflect that reality and not all the crazy I was feeling.
  • The punishment needed to fit the crime. This was a first offense. The theft wasn’t “from” anyone in particular. That is, she didn’t steal something that had an obvious owner, such as stealing a toy from a friend’s house. And while she doesn’t really have a concept of “value” at this age, the item in question was a small toy, not an iPod. As adults, we felt we needed to keep all this in mind and maintain some perspective.
  • Was “punishment” really what we were after here? Because, honestly, the visible guilt and terror in our daughter’s face and body language once she knew that we knew what she had done—and once she realized that she was responsible for making it right with the store—let us know that she understood that this was a serious screw-up. So how did we continue to drive that point home and really make sure that it stuck without being overly punitive, and with a consequence that made sense?

Let me tell you how grateful I was right then for the reading I’d done and the lectures I’d attended on positive parenting. I have never found those techniques to be helpful in the moment—NE-VER. Both my daughter and I are emotional people, and positive discipline has been no more or less effective than anything else I’ve tried. However, the one takeaway I’ve always tried to use consistently is the idea of logical consequences. I’m not always great at it, but I really do try! And in this case, the logical consequence presented itself pretty clearly: give the toy back to the store and apologize. But then what? Because again, it just didn’t seem like quite enough.

My husband decided that taking something away—a privilege, a possession, whatever—wasn’t the right type of consequence. As a family, we’ve talked about the idea of living in a community and what that means in terms of our responsibilities towards one another and our shared spaces. He suggested that, in order to restore the breach of community trust—that is, taking something from the community that wasn’t hers to take—our daughter should have to give something back to the community. Oh my gosh! This is why I married this guy; he’s brilliant! So that’s how we presented the second (hopefully) logical consequence to her. And when we talked about restoring the balance in trust, our daughter admittedly looked kind of confused (I believe my husband was using the image of the scales of Justice at the time). Attempting to clarify, I blurted out, “You know, like with The Force! You made a poor choice so it’s a little more Dark Side right now. And so you’ve got to put a little more into the Light Side so there’s balance.” Clearly, I’m neither the eloquent one in the family, nor the Star Wars fan, but the translation to one her favorite stories worked, so there’s a parenting hack for you. Anyway. It turns out there are multiple community clean-up days in our community over the next month that will give her (with parental supervision, of course) a chance to give back to the community. Upon learning about the multiple opportunities, our daughter said, “Oh! I want to do them all!” We thought she was just excited about cleaning up the earth (she’s a fan of Earth care and we thought she was just enjoying her “punishment,” which was kind of not what we were going for, but whatever), when she went on to say, “I want to earn lots of trust!” My heart is officially melted.

So, not that I’m now an expert in how to raise a tiny thief, but I’m feeling pretty good about how my husband and handled this one. I hope that sharing this story provides a moment of solidarity if you’ve been there (we see you!), or some ideas on what to do if you find yourself in our shoes one day (we hope you don’t because it’s super-awkward!).