Thursday, July 26, 2012

Stealing away

More on stealing.  Today, not focusing on the why or wherefore, but instead just focusing on changing behavior.

There's a line we heard from a friend; my husband and I repeat it over and over again to each other.  I'd been telling this friend how the boys had been stealing gummy vitamins out of my sewing room at night.  I described in detail the punishments we'd meted out, the lessons we'd preached at the boys at great length, and the rewards we'd promised them for future good behavior.  And my friend listened to this wide-eyed, and asked, 
"So, you think the boys won't steal anymore?".
I think my friend doesn't have any kids.  That's what I think.

Changing the behavior that my kids learned over time takes a lot of time and persistence.  And because the kids weren't really sure they wanted to change the behavior, it took even more time and even more (of my) persistence.  Of course, part of what I do is
  • make it easier to do the right thing (such as give them a box full of cans of soup they can eat for a midnight snack instead of pilfering off-limits candy), 
and another part of what I do is 
  • make it harder to do the wrong thing (we'll talk about locks and such tomorrow).  
But that doesn't cover it all.  For example, J-son sometimes took money, just to give it to other people.  He stole a $5 bill off my husband's dresser and gave it to some guy on a basketball court, no particular reason.  He took a $100 bill out of my husband's wallet and gave it to a girlfriend.  He'd "borrow" an MP3 player from a friend's house, and then tell me his friend had given it to him as a gift.  Boxes and locks go only so far.

Here, in no particular order, are the behavior aspects we implemented.  Let me clarify that:  I'm listing them in no particular order, but part of what made them successful is that we actually implemented ALL of them, consistently.  Order matters a lot.
  • Restitution:  As far as possible, the boys paid their debts back.  Sometimes the money came out of their bank accounts; sometimes it came in chores (J-son picked up dog poop 100 days in a row after the $100 bill fiasco).  
  • Punishment.  My husband took the role of drill sergeant; he'd run N-son and J-son and have them do push-ups until their arms quivered.  (Corporal punishment was not an option for these kids). 
  • Counseling.  I played "good cop" to my husband's "bad cop", probing the boys about why they did the theft and how they did the theft.  I'd ask them if it made them happy to steal (they'd always say no).  We'd discuss alternatives ("you could ask for food; you could save your money; you could wait until morning.")  
  • Medication.  As mentioned yesterday.
  • Reward.  It's hard to reward not-stealing . . . it's too easy to turn things into a reward for not-getting-caught-stealing.  But I did set up an allowance system, with real money (the beginning of the slow death of Mommy Dollars).    And weekly allowance has always been contingent on "not stealing and not lying."  Strictly enforced.  So, sort of a reward.  
  • Diversion.  We'd go out of our way to get the kids more exercise (wear them out so they'd sleep all night).  We'd try to direct them into wholesome activities and away from the kinds of kids who accept $100 bills.  This technique had limited success, at best.
  • Clarifying rules.  This has been especially important with C-son.  When I hand him anything now, I will make sure either to say clearly, "This is now yours.  You may keep it," or "You may use this for the afternoon, but it is mine, and I want it back later today when you are done."   I'm much more careful to say, "The things in this cabinet belong to me.  I will let you use them if appropriate, but you have to ask me first or you're not allowed to touch them."  And I repeat over and over that he is not supposed to go in certain rooms (my bedroom or sewing room) without me there.
  • Additional rules.  It is now a rule in our home that my boys may not accept gifts from friends.  The friends have to give the thing to ME, instead.  We had to enforce that rule often for things that J-son brought home -- sometimes the "gift" really was a gift, and sometimes its appearance in J-son's pocket was a surprise to the original owner.  This was emotionally the hardest rule to implement, because it embarrassed J-son, no matter whether the gift was legit or not.  But it had the quickest, most profound impact on changing his habits.
As you can imagine, in the most intense phases of this process, we were pretty depressed.  No surprise there.  It's hard to be constantly on the lookout; every time we temporarily misplaced something, we had to wonder whether it was a brain fart or a burglary.  It's hard to have these kids you're supposed to love, and instead to be constantly in their face about what they took this time.   

Each time we'd go through this cycle, my husband would turn to me and say, "So,  . . . now that we've told the boys not to take things that don't belong to them, they'll never steal again, will they?"  But of course we never meant that.  That line was our own little macabre joke.   Bad habits = hard to break.  

And yet, here we are, lo these many months later.  And for N-son and J-son, the bad habits of theft seem to basically be subdued.  I can't remember the last time the boys had to run or do pushups.   Their debts have been paid, if not forgotten.  We haven't grown complacent, by any means, but the worst of it all seems to have passed.

Now that C-son has started taking things, we've carefully started putting this structure back in place.  The big difference with C-son is that punishment is basically out of the picture; he has "ODD" (Oppositional Defiance Disorder), so any punishment just makes him 50 times worse.  [For an example, read about the battle I picked with him; restricting his access to my power drill resulted in an entire day of sulking and avoidance.]  So we rely more heavily on counseling and rules, with additional praise for asking to borrow things as opposed to just taking them.

And just as the thievery itself slowly fades away, tomorrow will be the last day I'll write about this.  Oh, thank goodness.  What a miserable topic.


  1. Actually it's not such a miserable topic because the principles you have used to change this behavior are correct principles that will work with other un-desireable behaviors. You and your husband are truly awesome parents and even though we've raised three children to adulthood, I still learn something when I read your blog. Keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks, as ever, for the encouragement, Rozy! - MM