Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Dealing . . . with stealing

When I was six years old, I pocketed a giant gum ball from a store.  My parents discovered my crime as we were getting into the car.  They lectured me, marched me back into the store, and had me return the gum ball (still in its wrapper) and apologize.  Total shame and humiliation; a memory I still remember.  How many of us have memories like that?

I guess I always thought that if my own kids stole anything themselves, it would be like my own experience:  Out of the house.  One time only.  Lesson seared into the psyche, not to be repeated.  When one of my step-daughters, in her early teens, swiped booze from our cabinets, I got my first taste that stealing isn't always quite so Norman Rockwell. 

The rest of this week, that's what I'm going to write about:  about kids stealing.

Note.  It's a bit daunting to be writing about stealing.  I've held off writing about this for a long time.  For one thing, if I were a good enough parent, would my kids steal?  I admit I'm a little concerned about my own image.  But a second reason, and maybe a bigger reason that I've hung back from the topic, is that the people who are the most negative about adopting kids from the foster system point exactly to this notion:  foster kids are thieves.

So I'll say that all kids, adopted and biological, have the potential to steal stuff, even from their own parents.  That's why I started this post with stories about myself and my straight-A-student step-daughter.  While it's true that statistically foster children have a greater tendency to pilfer things, I want to resist the label "thief" as though it's a permanent brand tattooed on their forehead.  So far, four-out-of-five of the kids I'm going to write about today have turned their backs on their previous light-fingered habits . . . and the fifth is too new to our house to have had time to repent.   So you catch us in mid-rehabilitation.

I guess I should add that a third reason I've hesitated to bring this up is it's depressing.  Depressing and stressful.  My kids could be perfect for 23 hours and 55 minutes of every day* -- doing chores, making dinner, playing well together, writing thank you notes -- but if they spend the other 5 minutes looting the drawer that holds my husband's wallet, then that colors the whole day.  Time-wise, that'd be a 287:1 good-to-bad ratio.  Energy- and emotion-wise, it would feel like the opposite.
 (*they're not, but let's pretend for the sake of argument they are)

Still, now that I've become an unwilling expert of sorts, I'll point out there's lots of kinds of stealing kids can do:
  • There's shoplifting (my own guilty version).  
  • The booze stealing was troubling mostly for the behavior it implied, not because of the cost of the theft or even because it hit particularly close to home.  It wasn't the case, for example, that I worried about missing my my cash or credit cards because of the missing whiskey.  (I have friends who even believe that this is "normal" behavior for teenagers).
  •  J-son and N-son did some minor, child-like theft (we found peanut butter jars in their closet, and for several months no candy jar in our home was safe).  
  • But they also went through the phase that seems the most criminal version; taking money out of our drawers or wallets, and spending it on vending machine food or using it to impress other kids.  They were sneaky about it; they lied about it, and the fact that there were two of them made it hard to pin down the culprit (although often it was both).  
C-son is a weirder case -- with him, it's almost not stealing.  He'll take something (usually something electronic) from somewhere in the house into his own bedroom.  He doesn't take it out of the house; he doesn't hide it; often he doesn't even deny taking it.  He sometimes leaves it there on his bed in plain sight.  When I ask him about it, he admits he found it and just wanted to use it.  And he'll put it back willingly.  Sometimes it's just strange stuff he can't even use: a car cell-phone charger for a phone we no longer have, or  my "kilo-watt" meter.  A roll of red electrician's tape.

But sometimes it's pricey stuff: a laptop.  a blackberry.  an iPod.  And he gets it by going through my husband's drawers, not just by finding it lying around in the living room.   It feels personal as well as costly.  So clearly we need to address this.  

So this week I'm going to write about dealing with stealing.  I'll try to give you a peek at some of the behavioral approaches we've used, not because I think we did a great job but because I think it might be interesting just to read about what this is like -- a bit of a story, perhaps more from the point of view of the kids than I'm used to giving.  For the same reason, I'll write about pharmaceutical changes we've used (or not).  I'll also write about physical changes we've made to the home (cabinets and locks) -- some of these might be of interest even to people without live-in burglars.

Finally, I'll add that with C-son, we knew thieving might be a problem when we brought him into the home -- it was part of the child profile his social workers shared with us.  It's actually surprising to us that it took this long to surface.  As I wrote to a friend last March,
Everything you wrote about how people treat dogs [badly] is likewise true of how people treat children . . . with somewhat more awful consequences.   . . .  My husband and I have learned the hard way how to deal with kids who steal -- and thank goodness we think we've figured out how to turn that around.  We have to dig a little deeper to see if we think we can actually handle everything else the new boys will bring along as baggage.   . . .
Honestly, what keeps going through my head is, as he hung on the cross, Jesus invited a thief to share his heavenly home.  So, . . . me too?  My home's not so heavenly, but it's not the worst spot on the planet.
Onward and upward.


  1. If this helps you or whoever can read it some time, my theory (and experience) is that stealing is highly connected with the lack of love in the childhood. And this is something that all these kids share: abandonment, broken families, short of affection...

    When you look at them with this in mind, you can be more understanding about them.

    But I know that those behaviours have to be addressed and here is where I don't know how to act.

    I'll go on reading your next posts very interested to see if I can learn something about this from your wide experience.

    1. Lack of love is one (important) small part of this. But my experience is that it is even more that these kids have not had practice/teaching for impulse control. They've been in circumstances in which taking things quickly and stealthily was the way to get fed, to get toys . . . this is different than learning that gratification can be delayed. Waiting for the good stuff is lesson that is difficult to learn late in life, especially when the opposite has been true for so long. --MM