My 3 year old has been in a new phase lately where he steals things like my husband's expensive new watch. Or, he will steal pens, my lipgloss, etc. We cannot get him to listen no matter what we try. What do I do?

  • 1
    It will help us give you better quality answers if you describe what you have already tried to do to correct the behavior. For example what have you said to him when you find the items? If you ask him if he has seen daddy's watch does he go get it for you? Have you explained to him what stealing is and how its not nice?
    – user7678
    Commented Jan 21, 2016 at 18:00

3 Answers 3


There are various reason why he/she is doing this. Here is an article with excellent information.

Some highlights:

Like lying, “stealing” is an adult term that may not mean anything to young children. Candy found clutched in a sticky fist after going through a checkout line or a toy car that turns up in the pocket of a four-year-old after a visit to a friend’s house is not proof that your child is already a delinquent. To the preschool child, possession means ownership. In a child’s mind he has a right to anything within grabbing distance. Children under four have difficulty distinguishing between “mine” and “yours.” Everything is potentially “mine.” They don’t know that palming a piece of candy at the grocery store is stealing until you tell them so. In the child’s mind he has done no wrong until the parents pass judgment.

Toddlers have no concept of ownership. Everything belongs to a two-year-old. Between two and four a child can understand ownership (the toy belongs to someone else), but may not fully believe that the toy doesn’t also belong to him. Even as young as two, begin teaching “mine” and “yours.” During toddler toy squabbles the parent referee can award the toy to the rightful owner, but don’t expect this concept to sink in fully until around the age of four. Look for other opportunities to reinforce the concept of ownership: “This toy belongs to Mary,” “Here’s Billy’s teddy bear,” “Whose shoes are these?” As the child grasps the idea of ownership and the rights that go along with it, teach the logical conclusion that ignoring these rights is wrong.

Find out what prompts the child to steal. The child who steals habitually despite your teaching about honesty usually has a deep-seated problem that needs fixing. Is the child angry? Does he steal to vent the anger? Does the child need money and feel that stealing is the only way he can get what he believes he needs? If so, offer an allowance. Help him get odd jobs. Help the child learn work ethics so that he can earn the toys instead of steal them. Most of the time a child who habitually steals is suffering from a poor self-image and needs to steal to boost his worth or get attention. As in handling all behavioral problems, it’s often necessary to take inventory of your whole family situation. Does your child need more supervision? Perhaps, some redefining of priorities and reconnecting with your child is in order.

The five-year-old finds somebody’s wallet and brings it to you. Praise him to the limit for his action! “Thank you for bringing Mommy the wallet you found. Now let’s see if we can find out who it belongs to. I’ll bet that person will be very happy you found it, just like you would feel if you lost something special and someone returned it.” Avoid saying, “Thank you for telling the truth.” Some children may not even have thought of keeping the wallet, and you don’t want to plant in their minds the option of being dishonest. Whatever praise you give, convey the message that your child did just what you expected.


Unless your 3 year old is hocking the stuff on ebay, "stealing" is the wrong word to use. A 3 year old may take stuff to play with it, or hide it, but the child is most certainly not "stealing".

Don't confuse this with adult behaviour. It is completely unrelated.

I would simply try to point out to the child that this habit of hiding things, causes significant inconvenience to grown-ups.

I'm not sure if you're familiar with the "Thomas and Friends" TV programs. The controller in this program has a typical phrase he uses regularly when the trains have misbehaved... "Thomas, you have caused confusion and delay". We say the same thing to our children. They think it's very funny, but they also know that it means that what they've done is not acceptable.

  • My nephew is a devil for "reorganising" things. He's copying tidying up but he puts things in the most baffling places! Commented Jan 22, 2016 at 10:01

I think you are lucky since your boy is 3 yrs old ,meaning he can still be corrected and is not too late,the both parties,both u and your partner must unite by making this work,when u say NO to him ,let your partner support your NO,.The bible says beat the child ,and spear the rod...meaning you must be strict on him before it get too late..

  • How is it with other things likes candy, sweets etc. Does. He take from that stuff or is it only the items you described? Now maybe a little bit a frank question does the child get more negative responses when he asks something from you then positive responses?
    – Nachmen
    Commented Jan 21, 2016 at 15:21
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    The Bible actually says, "He who withholds his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him diligently." It doesn't advocate beating the child. Discipline is teaching, not beating. Commented Jan 21, 2016 at 19:38
  • Proverbs says to chasten (discipline) children, and only implies to beat them ("spare the rod"). In any case, can you give some more detail about the solution you're suggesting? "Being strict" and "say no" and "be united" is somewhat vague; if you find that the original question is too vague for you to be more specific, then please just leave a comment rather than an answer.
    – Acire
    Commented Jan 21, 2016 at 19:56

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