Things are going missing…how to teach your preschooler to be trustworthy.

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.

Four year old girl eating large chocolate bar with pleasure

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”?

Toddlers staring at each other each holding blocks

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.Child with candy in hands behind back
  • 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:

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?”

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.

About Tamara Kraszewski, RN

I’m passionate about connecting with parents and supporting them in their parenting journey! My nursing career began with caring for infants at the Hospital for Sick Children followed by working as a Public Health Nurse supporting parents with children of all ages. I’m the mother of two grown boys and when not at work, I enjoy cycling, swimming and time with family.
This entry was posted in Keeping Your Toddler & Preschooler Safe, Parenting, Parenting Your Toddler & Preschooler, Play, Growth & Development, Preparing for Kindergarten, Toddlers & Preschoolers and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Things are going missing…how to teach your preschooler to be trustworthy.

  1. Mary S says:

    This is wonderful, thanks!

  2. Stan says:

    I’m very appreciative of this post. Lots of helpful information

  3. Chantal says:

    I found your “basic rules” super helpful! Very logical, but I hadn’t thought about that before.

    • Great! Good to know you found some helpful tips.

    • Don says:

      Any advice about what to do if my child is making friends with other children who do not seem to have the same values that I’m trying to instill in my child?

      • The answer really depends on the age of your child and whether you see negative effects on your child’s behaviour. If you see no negative behaviours, it may warrant just watching and monitoring your child’s behaviour. If you do see a negative impact, or even if you don’t then I’d suggest trying to expand his/her exposure to other children via inviting neighbours kids whose parents’ values align with yours. I’d also encourage involvement in extracurricular activities that interest your child, then encouraging play-dates with some of those children. You can also chat with the teacher about your concerns and she/he may have some strategies in the school environment. If you have more concerns or wish for more strategies, please call us at 311 and ask for a Public Health Nurse to discuss this further.
        Tamara, RN, PHN

  4. Emilie says:

    A must read for every parent. Thank you for sharing something so helpful and keep up the good work.

  5. Nat B says:

    So helpful! Thanks

  6. Geoff says:

    This is great!!! Going to start implementing

  7. Kate says:

    I need to make a plan. That’s a great point.

  8. Lillian says:

    I did not think I’d find anything about this online when I started looking. Thanks!

  9. Sarah says:

    Ask before you take – this is great advice! Helps to get around the confusion you described about what is ok to take and what isn’t.

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