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My 5-year-old son has recently developed the habit of lying and stealing. All of this in the span of 2 weeks. It started with him getting a small toy from his school classroom. We made him understand that it was not ok to take things without permission from school and that he should take it back and tell his teacher the truth. He nodded and did as told.

The next day we found a twenty dollar bill in his pocket and upon asking, he admitted to taking it from our bedroom drawer. This time we punished him by cancelling his skating trip. He was sobbing and promised to never do it again.

And again today he brought a piece of candy home (which had his friend's name on it) and made up a story as to how his teacher gave him the candy and had mistakenly written his friends name instead of his. When we pushed him into telling the truth, he finally said that he took it from his friends bag when they were in the bus. This time I really felt like spanking him but somehow kept my composure. He has again promised not to do it again. But we are worried. We do not want this to turn into an habit and have tried all forms of explanation (lovingly and sternly). What should we do next? IS there something to try or is counseling the only option?

  • Continuous and increasing punishmeny did work on me when I was around 5, but if some day I have a son, I would try teaching more, and use punishment as a last resort. But if the child continues to engage in the same way, don't hesitate to apply punishment: they need to learn the consequences! – iBug Mar 16 '18 at 2:18
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Well at first you shouldn't be that worried.

His actions are the consequence of a different way of thinking that you do. Children think in the moment not the future. If they see something they like they deal with the question how to get it as easy and fast as possible but not, what might happen or even what he is actually doing.

With the stealing example: He sees candy and he wants the candy, so he is working on the plan how to get it from his friend. In this moment he isn't realizing that he is stealing, he doesn't think of consequences, he especially doesn't think about, what happens if he comes home with the candy, he is just looking for the easiest way to get it. And when he comes home and is confronted from you, about it. It is again a situation where he will look for the easiest way out. Telling the truth means loosing it and a lot of more trouble, lying means keeping the candy and no trouble, so he goes with lying. That lying can fail and what happens if it fails, that is already to far in the future. So you need to understand that this isn't "evil" behavior, and that he isn't planing against you. As well as that he is honestly sorry about doing what he did when you confront him, because the moment you ask him if where he got it, is the moment for him when he actually realizes what he did.

Now how to deal with it. If you want your child to become a "good" person, you need to aproach it from two fronts, empathy and consequence.

In the consequence part you seem to be already on the right track. Just make sure he really understands the conection between his action and your reaction. And you might, if possible let him fix what he did.

Now the other part is a little more tricky.

And the other part is empathy, he needs to learn to see the consequences of his actions for the other side and to feel what others feel. For example if he lies he needs to understand that you start to distrust him and that it makes you feel bad because you want to trust him, that if he steals, something, someone else is missing what he stole.

Here the best way after my personal experiences, is to remember children of their actions. For example: Your kid did tell a few lies, now he is telling you something and wants to trust you. -> Be suspicious and tell him that you don't really trust him because he lied to you before. Or if he gets something stolen, remind him that he stole something from someone else and make him understand that they felt as bad as he feels now. But be careful that you don't use too old examples. Children need many chances for restarts.

Sadly I never really got a good time frame or even a rule of thumb, it seems to be a thing that can vary extremely.

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    +1 This is normal, unacceptable behavior for a 5 year old – Kevin Mar 15 '18 at 18:01
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    Thanks for detailed explanation Etaila. It did help calm me and I should be more empathetic to my son and at the same time be firm so that he does not repeat it. – Anthony Marston Mar 15 '18 at 22:33
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    Also, I think it's important to point out that lying is part of the development process for children. Most kids go through a lying phase. The stealing is an extension of it, though it could also show that the child feels like others have things he'd like to have (w/o necessarily having the need for them). My oldest didn't had issues with stealing but with lying a bit (but it was more to keep things "private"), around the same age and still going on a bit sometimes around 9 (and I accept some of it). – haylem Mar 15 '18 at 23:46
  • Our younger one, though, now 5, had a phase where she stole quite a lot of stuff from school (bits of toys, "exchanges" of hair pins and the likes... which may not always be actual theft and fairly traded, but I doubt the other parents appreciate the trades either :)). She was reprimanded a few times and has stopped doing that after a few weeks. But she still brings home lots of sweets she's being given at school by staff and allowed to take home, but that we dont't allow (dietary reasons). That's another issue, and I can see she'd like to eat these sweets if she could. – haylem Mar 15 '18 at 23:52
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    +1 good answer. On the empathy front I’ll just add that sometimes hypotheticals work in the moment. Like, “imagine if your friend had taken YOUR candy. How would you be feeling right now?” – MAA Mar 16 '18 at 16:03
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That's a tricky one. As a teacher that works with 5 year olds, I understand that 5 year olds can be really egocentric and have a really hard time understanding things from other people's POV. Sometimes they just take what they like, even if another child has it because they think it's theirs. This is pretty common, so don't worry too much (More on that here, if you're interested https://www.beingtheparent.com/understanding-ego-centrism-in-children/).

What I found sometimes helps is if children can see how hurt/upset the other child is feeling when their toy/lolly got stolen away from them, because they can actually see the impact of their actions. Does your son see the other child getting upset, or does the other child not notice yet? Maybe you can work with your Son's teacher and talk about strategies s/he uses at school and share ones you've tried at home. Sometimes if different strategies are used or if actions go unpunished at school, it can confuse the child. Hope that helps.

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