Have you ever played cops and robbers? It's fun pretending to be a cop chasing and capturing a robber. It can be even more fun to be the robber because you take things and try to get away with them before your buddy, the cop, catches you. You're not really stealing, of course. It's just make-believe.
Or maybe you're playing baseball, trying to steal a base and not get tagged out. When playing basketball, you can steal the ball from a player on the other team. A stolen base or a steal on the basketball court can help your team. Hey — it's fair play and it's part of the game!
These are both examples of pretend or imaginary stealing that are OK, but there is another form of stealing that is wrong.
What Kind of Stealing Is Wrong?
When a person takes something that belongs to somebody else without permission, that is stealing. The stolen object can be as small as a piece of candy or as big as a car. It can be taken from someone a person knows or from a stranger. It can be taken from a store, a kind of stealing called shoplifting, or from someone's home. But either way, it's stealing.
People can steal words and ideas, too. For instance, if someone takes your book report and tells the teacher that she — not you — wrote it, that's another form of stealing. Imagine how upset you would be if that happened to you!
Why Do Kids Steal?
Little kids age 4 and younger may not understand that they shouldn't take things that don't belong to them. But by the time you are 5 or 6, you understand what's right and what's wrong. Most school-age kids know that they aren't supposed to take something without asking or without paying for it.
Still, some kids lack self-control. They might see something they want and take it. They don't stop to think first about what might happen. They might not think to buy the object or ask to borrow it. Kids get better at self-control as they grow. Some kids may need extra help learning self-control.
Some kids steal because their friends or family members do it or because they might have been dared. They might believe their friends will like them more if they steal. Doing something for these reasons is called peer pressure, but kids don't have to give in to it.
Some kids steal because they feel something is missing in their lives. What's missing may be love or attention. Or simple things like food and clothing. They may be angry, sad, scared, or jealous. They might steal as a way to deal with the situation. But stealing won't fix what's missing.
Other kids might have personal problems that lead them to steal. They may feel jealous of what others have. They may feel unloved and neglected. Or they may be upset that their parents are arguing or getting divorced. But stealing won't solve these problems.
Other kids don't care about rules. They steal because they think they can get away with it. They may believe they deserve to have the stolen goods. But kids need to learn respect rules and the rights of other people.
What Can Happen if You Steal?
Stealing causes a whole bunch of problems. Suppose a kid sees a pen in a store and decides to take it. If she gets caught, the store owner might say she's not allowed in the store again. The owner might tell her parents. She may have to give money to pay for the pen and the police could be called because stealing (including shoplifting) is a crime. She could be arrested, especially if she has stolen before, and that could lead to more problems. She may have to go to court and may have some sort of punishment, like having to do work in the community to make up for what she has done.
How does stealing make someone feel? Whoever is stealing is probably nervous during the act itself. If she gets away with it, she may be relieved at first. Later, she feels lousy because she knows what she did was wrong. She also might be afraid that someone will discover her secret, and she'll want to deny it. But lying will only make matters worse.
If she gets caught, she may be really embarrassed. Then she may be ashamed because she let down her family. She may feel like nobody trusts her anymore. She might feel stupid and worried. What if she goes to jail? What if her favorite teacher finds out? What if she loses her friends?
But, even if she doesn't feel these things, stealing is still wrong.
Stealing has serious consequences (say: con-see-kwen-ses) because it hurts everyone. Stealing causes a big problem for a family. Store owners have to spend more money to protect their things, which makes prices go up for paying customers. Kids sometimes don't trust each other with their belongings. People don't feel as safe when they're worried about someone stealing. Stealing, in fact, may lead to violence. Some kids even carry weapons to protect themselves from other kids who may want to take their jewelry or clothing. This can lead to even more problems.
What Should You Do if You Know Someone Who Steals?
If you know someone who steals, you shouldn't just shrug it off. That's like saying stealing is OK. You can tell the person that stealing is wrong or that you're concerned about him, but he may get angry with you. It's a good idea to tell a parent, teacher, counselor, or other adult that you trust. Then leave it up to the adult to decide how to handle the situation.
Don't hang out with kids who steal. It's not smart to go along with someone just because he's your friend or because you don't want to be left out. Follow your conscience (say: con-shens), and don't do anything that would hurt others. Do what you know is right.
If someone is caught stealing, you could get in trouble just because you were there with him when it happened.
When Stealing Becomes a Habit
Some kids who steal once might do it a second and third time, until it becomes a habit. Repeat stealers often act in other bad ways, too. They may lie, fight, cheat, or write graffiti. They might ignore rules and disrespect other people and their belongings.
But even if stealing has become a habit, kids who steal can change their ways. Kids sometimes make mistakes, but there are ways to get back on the right track. Kids can ask adults to help them. Parents, counselors, and other adults can help kids with troubles that may have led them to steal in the first place. Kids can learn right from wrong, get better at self-control, and learn to solve problems without stealing.
When kids are honest and follow what they know is right, they feel happier and a whole lot better about themselves. Learning how to get what they need — without stealing — can be a big relief.
Reviewed by: Jennifer Shroff Pendley, PhD
Date reviewed: August 2012