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My 5-year-old has begun stealing food and lying about it. Most of the time, he takes sweets. Therefore, in my household, we limit the amount of sweets he may have. If he does not receive it, he waits until we are not looking and then takes it.

I usually check on my children between the hours of 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. When I went to my 5-year-old's room, he had a whole candy and cookies stash under his pillow. I talked to him, and he's still doing it. Not sure what's going on, I feel like I'm failing as a mom.

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    Why don't you just the secure the sweets and/or remove them from the house all together? Yes, its important for kids to be able to make decisions and learn from the natural consequences but sweets for a 5 year old seems like the wrong battle to engage in.
    – Hilmar
    Commented Jun 24 at 2:52
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    I am a parent of 2 kids : a 1 year old and a 5 year old. My kids watch Rhymes online. There is a poem called "Johny, Johny: yes, Papa". This poem is frequently played on YouTube kids and other online platforms. It shows Johny stealing sweets and lying to his Dad. I hate this poem as it is developing bad habits in kids. Commented Jun 24 at 9:05
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    I second @Hilmar. Sweets are unhealthy (I suppose that's why your kid cannot have as many as he wants, as opposed to, say, carrots). They are almost like a drug. It does not make sense to have a lot of them available but then forbid them. Even adults have a hard time with self-control if, say, there is an open bottle of Cabernet on the couch table every evening. Tempting your 5 year old that way is a bit unfair. (As an aside, life hack I learned from friends was to cut up some veggies and put them on the table in the afternoon without comment. Lo and behold, it's so convenient they get eaten.) Commented Jun 24 at 9:12
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    @FreePalestine You're not alone - this video is the 3rd most watched Youtube videos of all time (wikipedia link)
    – Jonathan
    Commented Jun 24 at 10:13
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    "I feel like a failure, like I'm failing as a mom" you aren't. My wife is a Social Worker. Trust me, there are entire worlds of "failing as a mom" that boggle the imagination. Keep you chin up. Commented Jun 25 at 16:29

5 Answers 5

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Lying and stealing are normal behaviors at that age, especially in boys. Also normal in humans is a propensity for sweets. As adults, we eat what we want, but little ones often need permission, which is, well, irritating when one really wants sweets. *If a child that age knows where the sweets are, can reach them, and is unsupervised for long enough, they will eat sweets, lacking the amount of self-control and moral development to avoid doing so.

Kids as young as 3 lie to avoid unpleasantness.

Where do you store your sweets? It doesn't have to be a discipline/self-control/hiding thing if he doesn't have access to them. Keeping them out of reach until they are more trustworthy is an easy solution.

I need some advice...

Your cultural background matters. People tend to parent as they were parented if they believe their parents did it correctly and those around them support that kind of parenting.

Authoritarian parents tend to expect more from a child than is developmentally appropriate, and will punish the little thief. Living in an environment where authoritarian parenting is the norm will certainly present a parent with more frustration and feelings of helplessness/failure than necessary when little ones do what little ones do.

Authoritative parents will understand developmentally appropriate stages, will communicate their concerns, discipline (not punish) if deemed necessary, and generally will be more understanding of the moral failings of the little thief.

Permissive parents impose fewer rules on their children, and probably wouldn't post this question here because they would be much less likely to forbid sweets. They would certainly address the up- and downsides of eating sweets now and again, and let the child do what he wanted, no thievery involved.

Unparents/uninvolved parents tend not to care too much about what their child does, and might not have discovered a stash of sweets under the little thief's pillow, though if there was no rule against taking and eating sweets, the little child wouldn't be a thief.

This is a spectrum; you might be somewhere between these classifications. So what you do depends on what you believe.

As someone who practiced an authoritative with-a-bit-permissive parenting, I would have a discussion with my child seeking their input on what they think should be allowed regarding sweets in general, would ask age-appropriate questions ("What might happen if you ate all the sweets you wanted? What else? Is there anything that's not good about eating just sweets?" Etc.) reach some sort of age-appropriate compromise with some input on consequences of disregarding the agreed-upon "compromise/contract", write it out on a post-it note with the child observing, stick it on the refrigerator, and the next time the little person took sweets inappropriately, I would fetch the post it-note, read it emphasizing the consequence, discuss alternatives the child had to taking the sweets surreptitiously and finally enforce the consequence with patience, understanding, and most of all the assurance of love and respect for a child's normal feelings.

What you do is completely up to you. Parenting is hard work (but mostly a joy!) with most parents believing they are failures at it from time to time (and again).

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    "As adults, we eat what we want" laughs in high cholesterol :-) .
    – Vorbis
    Commented Jun 24 at 9:20
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    I'd add "Problem-solving parents" reduce the opportunities for this to happen. Put money (spare change etc.), sweets, cookies and all those kinds of temptations somewhere they can't reach, and the problem goes away.
    – Graham
    Commented Jun 24 at 9:47
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    As an aside, I'd note that all parents must be doing this already with all medicines, sharp knives, matches/lighters, guns. and things like that. If they aren't, they're literally the definition of being a danger to their children. If the child gets badly injured as a result, they will be going to prison; and even if they don't, the chances of their children being taken off them is very high. So parents who value their children's welfare will already be doing this for some things. They simply need to extend the principle a little further.
    – Graham
    Commented Jun 24 at 9:52
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    @Graham - I did state that in my answer. There is no official "Problem-solving Parent" category in Psychology. There is "Collaborative" which is kind of what I described as Authoritative+Permissive. Kids need age-appropriate problems to solve. That's how they learn to solve problems. Commented Jun 24 at 13:02
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    +1 Your description of the parents spectrum is so amazingly simple. Commented Jun 25 at 8:40
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I'll be more authoritarian / prescriptive:

Do not punish your child for telling the truth

You write that the child is "lying about it". What do you hope to achieve by asking about it? Are you achieving that result?

As an adult, a court will not require you to give evidence against yourself. That's not just because 'evidence' produced by that method is useless: it's regarded as unfair to punish a person for testifying against themself.

I don't know why you have cookies and candy / sweets in your house. I don't know if your child regards it as a game, with rules, or a way of gaining your attention, or if they aren't getting enough to eat, or something else. I certainly wouldn't fixate on just "they like sweets" until you have tested those other common reasons. Another question more specifically about that would be a good idea.

But the lying is something you can stop right now. Don't put your child in the position where lying is the optimum strategy.

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    That's a very interesting perspective, but nothing in OP's question indicates that OP asked the child about the sweets - just that they are lying about it. I suspect OP found the sweets under the pillow, wanted to have a talk about how they are not allowed to just take and stash them, and the child started to proclaim that they didn't take them anyway.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jun 24 at 11:14
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    And as for why OP has sweets in their home - since sweets are limited, not forbidden, it seems normal to have more at home than what the child is allowed to eat?
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jun 24 at 11:15
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    Really appreciate do not punish your child for telling the truth. As for having sweets in the home, I don't know,.. last time I checked, skittles weren't illegal /shrug Commented Jun 25 at 8:46
  • It's June, and I don't have a Christmas Tree in the house. They're legal, normal, and not forbidden, but that doesn't mean I'm required to have one in my house: it's a choice you make.
    – david
    Commented Jun 26 at 3:38
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Hoarding food can be a sign of scarcity trauma (not necessarily of food) or fear and uncertainty about the future. If this is the case then focusing on the food may just be addressing the symptom not the underlying root cause.

Is there anything else your son might feel that he is not getting enough of? It's entirely possible that your son might not even be aware of whatever it is. Also it only matters if he feels he isn't getting enough of whatever it is not if he actually does have enough.

Is there any reason that he might feel uncertain about the future of his current living situation? (family, home, school) Financial issues, talk of moving, deaths of relatives or pets, parents or step-siblings moving in or out of the home, even friends moving away can trigger this.

Also keep in mind that while he might be hoarding only sweets, this may only be because these are the things he likes to eat and can easily obtain and store.

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    It is a child taking sweets. I truly wonder how you can jump to such extremes as scarcity trauma and fear/uncertainty about the future. It is a child taking sweets.
    – user46609
    Commented Jun 25 at 8:47
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    Yeah, I think this conclusion is a bit extreme. It might work as a side note for possible reasons in an answer. But we can't reach that high considering how little we know about the OP's case and base an entire answer off of it. Commented Jun 25 at 8:53
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    Answer really dramatizes the undramatic. It's just a child snatching sweets, like children have done throughout the ages. Commented Jun 26 at 10:13
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    @SyedM.Sannan, user46609 did you see "can be" near the beginning of the first sentence? A responsible approach to diagnosis also considers unlikely possibilities. To call the suggestion in this answer a "conclusion" is also "jumping to extremes."
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 27 at 5:14
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    @phoog Yes, but a good answer should not just include an unlikely possibility but a list of other possibilities and possible ways to tackle them. When you include only one very unlikely possiblity in your answer, it is likely to be interpreted as a "conclusion" by people sometimes regardless of the wording you choose. Commented Jun 27 at 7:00
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Be calm, and use this as an opportunity

Hang in there. My 6 year old did this regularly at the end of last year and I noticed a whole lot of lolly wrappers under his bed. It's normal.

I'm not sure what your priorities are but mine were to:

  • keep trust between us
  • not alienate him
  • treat it like a logical problem, rather than a criminal problem (ie. allow him to make a rational decision based on information, rather than simple obligation or obedience). This allows him to grow as a person.

What I did was:

  • Invited him over while I sat down. You should not be overbearing and standing up. Sit down side-by-side to allow him to feel comfortable.
  • Use inclusive language. "We" not "you", because logic applies to everyone. Be calm and do not feel emotional. Your child is looking to you as a model of behaviour.
  • Discuss with him the dangers of sweets. Use kid language "Sweets are full of sugar, and sugar rots our teeth, this is why we can't have them because then we won't have any teeth". "Why aren't dogs allowed to have chocolate?" "Where does the sugar go when we eat it? It goes in our tummy, then goes everywhere in our body" "Why can't we eat in bed and instead must eat at the dining table?"
  • Do the same in a calm discussion about telling the truth. "Telling the truth is always better - I'll never raise my voice to you if you do". Make sure you are smiling and use open body language. It is important to show him that there is no point in lying.

Then you have to just keep at it, and do the same thing whenever it happens again (and it will happen again), never raise the stakes, just keep doing the same thing. After a month or so, I found my kid doing it less and less, and now he doesn't do it all. In fact, it has fostered a new-found interest in biology and nutrition.

For me the main important principle is to keep the relationship between you and your child positive and true and trustworthy. At this age harsh discipline rarely works, it just makes them confused and angry, with no idea why everyone suddenly got so angry. Rather than a challenge that you must overcome, see this as an opportunity to grow your son and mature your relationship.

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    I agree with a lot of this answer, so +1. Nit picking about the results of eating sweets being just about the effects on teeth. To me, it's about health; if it weren't, the child could simply agree to rinse well and brush their teeth after every binge of eating sweets. Commented Jun 25 at 15:57
  • @anongoodnurse That is only one of the points. For a 5 year old, there is a need to reduce facts into bite-sized-chunks for them to easily digest.
    – flox
    Commented Jun 27 at 8:11
  • That's true enough; more information isn't necessarily better. In countries where there's a problem with childhood obesity, one's mind goes there first. Commented Jun 27 at 11:55
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How about having a "snack drawer" that is accessible to kids, and contains a nice amount of sweets and such? This will reduce any anxiety of scarcity in the child. Hoarding and stealing behaviours become pointless when he can see there is abundance.

You can still make rules around when treats are allowed, but perhaps this is a way to help him learn about trust and self-control, and how to listen to his own feelings of hunger and satiety.

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    This seems generally fine to treat this specific problem with the candies, but I think the answer should focus a bit more on treating the hoarding/lying behavior. There will be things in life that won't necessarily be abundant for the child, and they might resort to the same means of stealing, hoarding, and lying in those cases since they have seen it work for them before. In certain cases, it can even turn into a habit. I suggest treating the root cause in this case instead of just the very specific candy problem. I am sure the parents care about the child's behavior more than losing candy. Commented Jun 25 at 8:50
  • And once you make rules around when treats are allowed, you create scarcity, there is no longer abundance. And so the child will again steal and hoard sweets, and lie to the parent to circumvent these restrictions. It is a child taking sweets, after all. You can use this opportunity to teach the child impulse control, if it is ready (probably not at 5), or you can simply put the sweets out of reach of the child. It is not rocket science.
    – user46610
    Commented Jun 25 at 8:52

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