Talking to Kids About Stealing and Cheating: How to Teach Your Kids Not to Cheat or Steal

Most school-age children understand that cheating and stealing are "wrong". However, this simple awareness does not rule out their capacity to act out these behaviors. In fact, cheating and stealing are among the most common behavioral problems a parent will face. Luckily though, when handled correctly, these behaviors can be quickly deterred. And while parents should never excuse a child caught cheating or stealing, they should understand that punishment alone might not prevent this type of conduct in the future; instead, understanding why your child cheated (or stole) can help both of you to get to the root of the problem.

Why do Children Cheat and Steal?
Some children may cheat purely out of laziness – it is easier to have the answers available to you rather than to have to memorize them, just like it is easier to take something rather than earn enough money to buy it yourself. However, laziness is often a manifestation of low self-esteem, especially with regards to cheating. Often children who do not feel they are smart enough on their own will rely on cheating to achieve success.

Other common reasons are:

  • They Want Attention:There is no doubt, when your child cheats or steals he will garner your attention (albeit not in the way you might prefer). Similarly, a child who feels he is otherwise invisible may use extreme behaviors as a way to get you to notice him.
  • To Challenge Authority: Whether it is you (the parent), a teacher or coach, your child may be testing the limits to see how far you will let them go.
  • Ego and/or Peer Pressure: Some less privileged children may steal to acquire things they otherwise would not be able to have in order to gain acceptance with their peers. Also, they may feel stealing or cheating will gain them the respect of their classmates (this is especially true of boys).
  • They Lack Self-Control: This is especially true with children who are just beginning their school-age years. They simply cannot resist the temptation to take what they want without asking.
  • To Please You: In particular with regards to cheating, a child may cheat because they want to attain high grades in order to please you or because they fear the consequences of not achieving academic success.

How to Talk to Your Child About Cheating and Stealing
The best way to get your child not to steal or cheat is to speak to them before the onset of these behaviors. Instilling in your child the idea that cheating and stealing are wrong is best achieved through messages that explain why this is so. In this way children will develop their own perspective on what is right and wrong.

For example, using age-appropriate language explain to your child that:

  • Cheating and stealing are serious offences that face serious consequences
  • Cheaters only cheat themselves – they will never know how well they could have done on their own!
  • Cheating is unfair to those who have studied, just like stealing something is unfair to those who have earned it or those whose livelihood depends on their being able to sell it
  • You have nothing to be proud of when you steal another person’s idea or when you do not earn something you have
  • Cheating erodes trust: when your son or daughter cheats or steals, they are telling you that they cannot be trusted. Trust is one of the most important elements of your relationship with your child. Therefore he or she should understand that the loss of that trust could mean the loss of certain privileges and freedoms

What to do if You Catch Your Child Cheating or Stealing

If your child is caught cheating or stealing then the first thing you should do is find out why. If your child is very young (less than 4) she probably does not understand what she has done – a lack of self-control is most likely the reason. In this case, the best thing to do is teach your child how to acquire things honestly and as much as possible try to limit her exposure to temptation.

Once your children are school-age, however, they should understand that cheating and stealing are wrong. If they are caught acting out one of these behaviors, here are a few suggestions on how to handle it:

  • Be sure you are correct in your accusation:If you are going to confront your child about cheating or stealing it is crucial that either yourself, a teacher or other authority figure have witnessed the act itself. False accusations could backfire by driving your child to cheat or steal (since they’re getting credit for it anyway).
  • Stay calm: Although these are serious offences, remember that they are common; try to see this an opportunity to teach your child a valuable life lesson.
  • Remember that these behaviors do not make your child "bad":If your child cheats or steals remember this does not mean they will lead a life of crime. In fact, if your child is already acting out of low self-esteem, making your child feel they are a bad person will only reinforce this behavior.
  • Be an example:If you are cheating on your taxes, stealing satellite television or simply not letting the cashier know when he accidentally forgets to ring in one of your purchases, you are only teaching your child that cheating and stealing is okay for you but not for them, which is not only a sure-fire way to ensure such conduct continues, but it also erodes your children’s respect for your authority.

If stealing does become a habit with your child, you may want to speak with a therapist about it as in extremely rare cases they could develop kleptomania (a disorder that causes people to steal objects of little material worth and then hide or discard them).