285. Stealing.

In our society, when adults steal, they’re supposed to be punished. When children steal, they’re supposed to be taught not to. That’s the way our society works. Some people believe, as I do, that adults should also be taught not to steal, but I don’t know how to do that; I specialize in children. And some people don’t distinguish punishment from instruction as often as I do. They’re quicker to think punishment teaches a lesson.
I think most children steal at some points in their lives, and very few completely outgrow it. They do develop morals. But they also develop a sense of which stealing they’re more likely to get away with. If a child finds something he/she wants, she/he is tempted to try to apply the finders/keepers rule. And to some degree, most adults do that, too. If the average adult finds a quarter, you probably don’t see that quarter in any lost and found the next day.
Many people don’t like the idea of moral relativism. They firmly believe that stealing is wrong, and they rigidly define “stealing.” To them,
anyone claiming to own something that rightfully belongs to someone else must be severely punished, no matter how old the “criminal” is. I remember how I reacted to children’s stealing when I first started learning about it. As gentle and understanding as I was in most situations, I turned into Kojak when I discovered that a child had stolen. I’d occasionally had something stolen from me. It had made me feel violated, and I certainly wasn’t going to allow the younger generation to become thieves.
Children do need to learn not to steal, and it can be effective to establish consequences for stealing. I use the word “consequences,” rather than “punishments,” but maybe it’s only a euphemism; the word “punishment” conjures up visions of prisons and executions in my mind, and I’d rather not use it. But you know what I mean.
That shouldn’t be the only form of instruction, though. We’ve got to make sure children see some examples of our own responses to the temptation to steal. When they see us take that quarter that someone left in a pay phone, they’ve got to learn a little about why we don’t search for the rightful owner of that quarter. And when they see us find something more valuable, they’ve got to see both our temptation to keep it (if we’re tempted) and our decision to resist the temptation.
There’s more to think about. Why do children steal? What, if anything does “possession” mean to children? Do children understand the relationship between stealing and punishment, or do they think they’re being punished for being the people they are?
This is a difficult, complicated issue, and there’s a tendency to try to make it less complicated – to think stealing is wrong, and should be punished, and that’s that. That used to be my approach. I still think stealing is wrong, but I’ve grown less likely to condemn children who steal. I’m a teacher. Punishment is only one instructional technique, and I think other techniques are sometimes more effective.

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