Stealing: Lessons for a 4-Year-Old

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I took the kids to the pet store on this Martin Luther King Jr. holiday morning, thinking we'd get bird seed to make peanut butter and bird seed pine cones this afternoon. We love all the birds that come to our yard, and even keep a running list of all of the birds we've identified ... Northern Cardinal, Carolina Chickadee, Mourning Dove, House Finch ... the kids still giggle every time they say "Tufted Titmouse."

The front of the store had one of those greeting card displays, this one full of cards with cute pictures of animals doing things that animals don't do in the course of a normal day, like yoga or dating. My children kept laughing at the cards and running back and forth from the display to show them to me.

When it was time to check out, my 4-year-old daughter asked me to buy her a card. I said no. She asked me again, more whiny and urgent this time, and I still said no.

"But pul-eeeeeeeze mama. I really want it. Really, really."


I paid for the wild bird seed and suet cake, and we left.

In the car on the 10-minute drive home, my daughter seemed strange. She pulled her baseball hat down low and wrapped her coat tightly around herself. I asked what was wrong and she told me she was cold. That didn't seem right, since the car was still warm from our earlier errands.

I kept watching her in the rearview mirror. She looked like she wanted to crawl inside herself, to become invisible. I don't think it would have been possible for her to curl up into a smaller ball, strapped tightly as she was in her car seat.

Again, I asked her if something was wrong, and she said no. It was obvious she was lying. I started to feel sick. I had an idea what was going on, but I hoped I was wrong.

When we got home, I got out of my car door and immediately went to hers.

"Come here. Open your coat."

"No, mama," she said, eyeing the floor of the garage.

"Open your coat."

Out falls a card. On the cover is a dog wearing scuba gear. I'm not laughing.

"Get in the car. We're going back."

I feel sick. It's not like she just accidentally took something. She took the card on purpose. My beautiful little girl knew taking it was wrong, which is why she tried so hard to hide it the whole way home. I had said no as clear as day, and she decided she should have it anyway. This is one of those moments where you know you have to make a stand, hoping it sticks so that the offense is never repeated. I'm praying this sticks. Praying.

She's crying. She tries to defend herself.

"I just wanted to write on it," she explains, as if that's an acceptable reason. Even she knows it isn't ... I think.

I tell her that when we arrive at the store, I will bring her inside and she must tell the store owner that she took the card and apologize.

Am I being too hard on my girl? She's still so small, with her teensy baby teeth and her cute little nose and her perfect skin and her hair that smells like "No More Tears" and the way that she still can't say her Rs. I know I read somewhere that 4-year-olds still don't understand the concept of lying. At the same time, I can't let her think there aren't consequences to taking something that doesn't belong to you, can I? I could throw up.

We get out of the car and she is sobbing.

"I don't want to go in there. You do it mama. I'm scared, mama."

I take her by the hand.

"We're going to go in there together and you're going to say you're sorry. I didn't take the card. You did. You have to say you're sorry."

We walk into the store and she's a mess. She's crying so hard she can't see straight. I take her to the cash register and tell her to speak up. Now she is panicking, literally grabbing at my waist, trying to crawl up the side of me. She's reaching for my neck, begging for me to pick her up without actually saying the words. It's so hard not to take her in my arms and hug her and tell her everything is going to be okay, but I can't. She's got to do this.

She blurts out that she's sorry, looking at no one in particular, and thrusts the card out into the awkward air. The store owner, an elderly woman, looks conflicted. You can tell she's glad we brought it back, but there's also a part of her that wants to take this wailing little creature up into her arms as well.

I make her look the owner in the eye to apologize. She does this, as best as she can anyway.

We leave. When we get home I send her to her room for a little bit. I don't think I should punish her all day, should I? I mean, I already made the point, I think. Oh gosh, I don't know. A few minutes later I go upstairs. She's in her bed, under her covers, her blue eyes red and puffy.

I try to talk to her, but maybe I'm wasting my time. I'm not sure how much she can truly comprehend adult concepts like how bad it feels to do something wrong. She sits there, wavering between manipulating me and feeling remorse. Finally, she grabs me and says, "I'm sorry, Mama."

Oh how I love you, little preshy. How I pray this lesson sticks.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.