Spoiled child gets a rush from steal­ing at school

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - JOHN ROSEMOND

QWe’ve just been in­formed that our 7-year-old son has been ef­fec­tively “ex­pelled” from the pri­vate school he at­tended last year be­cause of re­peated in­stances of steal­ing small items from class­mates and, on one oc­ca­sion, from the teacher’s desk. We’re rather shocked be­cause our son was the high­est-per­form­ing stu­dent in his first-grade class and the school’s ad­min­is­tra­tion promised to work with us con­cern­ing the prob­lem. Through the school year, he stole at least 20 items from other chil­dren, things like pen­cils, pen­cil sharp­en­ers and sev­eral of these new toys called “spin­ners.” He’s an only child and only grand­child who has been — we re­gret to say — in­dulged by us and both sets of grand­par­ents. We don’t un­der­stand how a child who has been given nearly ev­ery­thing he ever wanted would steal things he could have for the ask­ing. Do you have any in­sights into this sort of thing and, hope­fully, a so­lu­tion?

A Para­dox­i­cally, many if not most young chil­dren who steal from other chil­dren fit the pro­file you de­scribed. They are over-in­dulged, from up­per-mid­dle class homes and of­ten only chil­dren.

The ques­tion “Why would a child who’s been given nearly ev­ery­thing he ever wanted steal from other chil­dren?” an­swers it­self. For the chil­dren in ques­tion — for whom get­ting things is rou­tine — there’s no ex­cite­ment at­tached to be­ing given some­thing new. The act of steal­ing pro­vides that thrill. Fur­ther­more, steal­ing im­parts a sense of drama to a trans­ac­tion that has be­come dull and pre­dictably easy. Specif­i­cally, lots of peo­ple, mostly adults, are up­set and ev­ery­one’s try­ing to get to the bot­tom of things.

My first rec­om­men­da­tion, there­fore, should be ob­vi­ous: Put a lid on the ma­te­ri­al­is­tic ex­cess in his life. Get­ting some­thing new has to be­come the ex­cep­tion rather than the rule.

It’s un­for­tu­nate that the school has de­cided on ex­pul­sion af­ter as­sur­ing you that they’d work with you. I imag­ine their sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity to par­ents of your son’s class­mates drove their de­ci­sion. There is, how­ever, a sil­ver lin­ing in this oth­er­wise dark cloud. If your son at­tended a public school, there’s sig­nif­i­cant like­li­hood that he’d be re­ferred to a psy­chol­o­gist, di­ag­nosed and per­haps even med­i­cated for some bo­gus rea­son.

One way to stop the steal­ing, which sounds as if it’s be­come or in dan­ger of be­com­ing ha­bit­ual, is to home school him for a few years. I’m not talk­ing about iso­lat­ing him from other chil­dren, but sim­ply re­duc­ing — if not re­mov­ing — the op­por­tu­nity for the prob­lem to oc­cur. If you home school, you should pro­vide him plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties for su­per­vised recre­ational in­ter­ac­tion with other kids his age.

If you de­cide to move him to an­other school, then you need to pre­pare your­selves and his new teacher (and prin­ci­pal) for the fact that steal­ing was a prob­lem in grade one. If and when it oc­curs again, he has to pay a steep price. I’d sug­gest hav­ing him write and de­liver an apol­ogy to the en­tire class or some­thing along those lines. That may have to hap­pen sev­eral times be­fore the “medicine” takes ef­fect. The suc­cess of such an ap­proach de­pends on a teacher who is af­fec­tion­ate but un­emo­tional and cut-and-dried con­cern­ing dis­ci­plinary is­sues. Gen­er­ally, the older the teacher, the bet­ter, but that’s true re­gard­less these days.

John Rosemond is a fam­ily psy­chol­o­gist and the au­thor of sev­eral books on rear­ing chil­dren. Write to him at The Lead­er­ship Par­ent­ing In­sti­tute, 1391-A E. Gar­ri­son Blvd., Gas­to­nia, N.C. 28054; or see his web­site at rosemond.com

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