My friend had placed a box of chocolate bars for a fundraiser on her hall table. She was happy to see they were disappearing quickly and assumed her husband must have sold a bunch of them at work.
To her surprise, she discovered eleven empty packages in the garbage can! After a talk with her four-year old daughter about why this was wrong, she later found three empty packages behind a curtain, and even later, four beside the piano.
I laughed at the time, but as a parent this can be upsetting.
Many very young children have trouble controlling their emotions, which is often called self regulation. As a result, they may have trouble dealing with their impulses. Have you ever watched “The Marshmallow Experiment”?
Also, many young children will experiment with taking things that don’t belong to them. Toddlers start by taking toys from siblings, and saying “mine!” Preschoolers may take items from a sibling’s or parent’s bedroom thinking everything in the house belongs to everyone. So outside the home, they may continue to feel that when things are found they can be taken. Children four years and younger may not understand what’s right and what’s wrong.
If our child finds a lost ball in the park, we may let them take it but if they find a wallet, we say “no, that’s not yours.” It’s okay to take pictures they’ve drawn home from daycare, but it’s not okay to take the crayons. So the action of taking things that don’t belong to them, can be very confusing.
You may also find your child says that they haven’t taken anything, and you may be more concerned with the lying than the taking.
So how do we guide our young children to learn what they can and can’t take, and to hold back their impulses?
- Discuss some basic rules with your preschooler:
- “Ask before you take. Always ask a grown-up if you wish to keep something you’ve found.”
- “Keep your hands to yourself in stores unless a grown-up says it’s alright to touch something.”
- Help your child understand that when you take something without asking or paying for it, it hurts someone else.
- Make a plan with your child to say sorry and replace or return the item.
- Keep objects that may tempt your child away from their reach as much as possible. Kids get better at self control as they grow, and some need extra help learning self-control.
- Build a strong relationship with your child. A close connection from the start will help them learn right from wrong and how to act in positive ways.
- Praise and encourage behaviour you want and join in on activities with your child.
- Know where your child is and what they are doing.
- Support friendships with kids and families who share your values. Watch and guide these relationships.
- Promote honesty and trust with your child. If he broke his sister’s doll, you might say: “This doll is broken, what happened?” rather than using an angry tone and saying: “You broke this doll! You’re a naughty boy!” Using a calm voice and offering him the chance to say he did it will help him to be honest.
If your child continues to collect things that don’t belong to them, ask for professional help before they reach school age. You can:
- Talk to your Healthcare Provider who can refer you to a therapist or counselor.
- Call the Reach Out Centre For Kids(ROCK)
- Speak with a public health nurse: Call 311 for information and resources.
- Visit our Halton webpages to learn about emotional well-being and mental health.
Most preschoolers do not understand that it is wrong to take what is not theirs. A loving, positive, and caring relationship with your child will help them learn and guide them in the right direction.
Stay tuned for my next blog: “Your school age child is stealing: what can you do?”
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For parenting information or to speak with a public health nurse (every Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) simply dial 311 or 905-825-6000.