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Our son brought us my ring that he had taken from my things and told us that he had found it. When asked where he found it he made up a story that he had found it several days prior at the library. This is the second time this has happened. Many months ago he brought us a different ring that he had taken from my things and he said that he found it in the road. I think the reason he even brought it to us is because he knew he couldn't wear it unnoticed.

When I confronted him about the lying he denied it. I showed him the little box with the rings where he had taken it from and told him that the ring was in here, now you have it. After spending some time alone in his room I think he realized that we knew the truth and if he wanted to move on he would have to admit it - and so he did.

He is curious and gets into things. He has asked us in the past if he could have one of my rings but they were too big. We took him to buy rings with money that he earned but he fiddles with them and lost them.

I want to convey the seriousness of lying and stealing without encouraging him to hide things from us altogether.

At this point the plan is that he will loose some privileges for about a week (he doesn't know which ones yet). When the cousins come over and play on the game console he will do chores. That sort of thing. Game console is normally reserved for Saturdays and a visit from cousins is very special. He is a social hound so he will not like this at all.

We've had several incidents where he's taken travel snacks from the pantry. When we find the wrapper in his pocket or stuffed in his drawer and confront him on it he flatly, emphatically and repeatedly denies it.

There have been many issues with him trying to manipulate parents and grandparents by telling different things to one and the other to orchestrate some event. The lying is sometimes so obvious - I can be standing right next to him when he pokes his brother in the eye for instance. Then turns to me and says "I didn't do it". He then continues to deny it even though I watched him do it.

  • We talked about what happens to youth who steal and end up in Juvenal hall. His response to that is - that won't happen to me because I'm never going to steal again. – Garfield May 1 '18 at 18:48
  • Since the incident I think he's sensed how grieved we are and he's been giving us lots of hugs for no reason at all. He seems to want to make it better and for things to go back to normal, although we really haven't applied any punishment yet, other than the uncomfortable conversations. – Garfield May 1 '18 at 18:55
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    Just a side note, when you shame him in front of friends I am pretty sure that will counter you goal to teach him to be transparent with you. You are effectively publicly shaming him, and the result of shame is to hide. I'm just thinking rationally, not reading some psychology book. – Adam Heeg May 1 '18 at 20:56
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    Also, never stop speaking your expectations about who you want him to be. One of my kids is lazy, and at first she was ashamed of it and tried to hide her poor homework or lack of completing chores. We addressed those issues - painfully slow and with persistence and love and patience, but we also focused on how pleasant her relaxed personality was to be around. Each trait has positive and negative sides and we need to speak life into our children's natural traits, and cultivate ways to overcome the weak side of those same traits. – Adam Heeg May 1 '18 at 21:02
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To some extent this is where you need to decide where you fall on the 'punishment' spectrum. There are very different routes to take, and it sounds like you're not firmly set on where you lie there.

If your response to catching him lying is primarily to punish him (remove privileges unrelated to the action), then you're setting up a cat and mouse game. He's disincentivized to lie or steal, but only because of the risk of getting caught; therefore for things he is confident he will get away with, or for things where the reward is higher than the risk, nothing changes - just the line where he makes that choice.

The good part of that is that he will lie/steal less. Moving that line over is effective, and anyone who's read much on criminal psychology probably knows that the far majority of people are those with a 'line' - i.e., if you know for certain you won't get caught, most people will commit minor crimes (including stealing small things or lying). In the USA, speeding is the best example of this: most people drive the speed they think the cops won't ticket at (5 or 10 MPH over), not the speed limit.

The bad part is that you're not really teaching him to tell you the truth and not to steal for their own sakes; you're just changing the incentive structure. Punishment is effective for many, but it doesn't change the ethics: it only changes the results. What you're doing is assigning an effective cost to an action - the net value of the thing he'll lose times the odds of being cost - and he will then choose to do or not do whatever it is.


If your goal is for him to choose not to steal or lie even when he knows he won't get caught, then he needs to learn/understand why, and what the actual consequences are.

Those are broken out into emotional, social, and logical consequences/reasons:

  • Emotional: he makes you feel bad when he lies or steals.
  • Social: someone who has a reputation for lying or stealing will be shunned by his friends/family/neighbors/etc., will have a hard time making new friends or getting a job
  • Logical: if he is stealing or lying, aside from punishment, you're going to restrict the possible opportunities for lying or stealing - you'll lock your room, you'll not allow him to be on his own as much, you'll restrict his travel (for example, not allow him to go to the mall, since he's a risk to shoplift). And of course there are the legal punishments if things go to that length.

Talk through all of these; but also talk through with your son why he felt he needed/wanted to make the choice that he did. Be open and understanding in the conversation, and try to fully understand his point of view. Why did he want the ring? Did he want to wear it because he liked it? Did he plan to sell it, because he needs money for something? Is he trying to earn social capital (either by being a 'bad boy', or by wearing particular jewelry to look cool, or giving it to a girl/boy he likes)?

Consider whether there is a problem in your relationship that led him to make the choices he did. Does he feel that he can't talk to you about the things that led to this? Does he feel that he doesn't have as nice of things as his friends? What else is going on here, that you can address - either by correcting (such as adjusting your interactions with him) or by talking about why they're how they are (perhaps your son is in a school where most of the kids are more well off than your family, or their parents make different choices with money than you do).

Ultimately, changing the ethics means understanding the reasons (on your side and his), and understanding the true consequences of dishonesty (aside from, or in addition to, punishments for getting caught for specific instances). And it's not a one sided thing; it's important for you to understand things along with him, not just to lecture.

  • At it's root, the why is very simple. I saw it, I wanted it, I took it. Just like Adam in the garden. I think talking about why he wanted it serves to raise self awareness. I'm not sure that goes far to enable the will to resist. When I want cake and know it's just my body telling me it craves the sweet taste and the sugar rush. I'm not sure that helps me resist. But maybe it's step 1. And it begins the conversation. – Garfield May 1 '18 at 18:36
  • If he really has no sense of personal property, then that's almost certainly the place to start. It almost implies there wasn't a realization that there was anything to resist. Some kids really don't have that innate sense - especially if they don't really "own" all that much, and in particular only children (who don't have to learn "sharing" at quite the level of multiple children). – Joe May 1 '18 at 19:01
  • As far as resisting cake - the understanding of the consequences of eating that cake is what keeps you from doing it, right? The fact that it will make you feel bad later, the fact that it's not good for you, etc. It's not just that you understand why you want it, but here it's what makes this situation different from the others where he/you didn't take/eat something. Why eat this cake and not the candy bar yesterday, etc. – Joe May 1 '18 at 19:03

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