Middle School Mondays: When Your Child Lies, Cheats, or Steals and Otherwise Does Something That Conflicts With Your Values
First of all, please note that I said when your child does something wrong. Not if. When. The chances are very remote that they never will do something wrong.
Over the years I can't count the number of times I've had a conversation something like this:
"Mr./Mrs. X, your child did such-and-such a thing."
"What? But how could he do that? We've taught him/her better than that!" The thing is, the parent is completely truthful. They have taught them better.
The sort of incidents I describe here are usually moderate infractions. They are a little more serious than very minor things, but not terribly major either. For example, someone taking something small from another person, destroying some small object, or showing disrespect.
For example, I once had some students who were rehearsing in another teacher's room. They saw some candy in the room and took it. When I told their mom, she was appalled. "I've taught them not to steal!" She was angry with them, and a more than a little embarrassed.
This actually happens quite a bit. Kids see something laying around and since it doesn't apparently belong to anyone, they take it.
Or, they ruin something, some property belonging to someone else. This is almost always thoughtless, rather than malicious. Parents respond to this like the issues of minor stealing. "I can't believe he would do that! We respect other people's property in our house..."
The list can go on and on. Kids do things all the time that adults consider to be stealing or cheating or destruction of property and on and on. The parents are baffled because they feel they have taught their children to be honest, to respect property, to not cheat, and so on.
The children, however, are often baffled as well.
Here's the thing to remember. Adults are able to generalize and apply to specific situations more than kids. We hear "don't steal" and know that means you don't take anything that doesn't belong to you. Kids hear that and agree with it--but it doesn't necessarily translate down to the micro level of taking some candy from an empty desk. The same kids who would never consider robbing a bank or taking an iPod from someone simply don't connect the dots to less dramatic
The basic principle to remember is that, as far as the kids can see, they haven't done anything all that wrong. The adult sees that they've stolen. They see that they were hungry and a jar of candy was sitting there. And, being a bit egocentric, they sort of just assume it was there for their use. Or, even more likely, they simply didn't think about anything at all.
My suggestion in cases like this is to not overreact. The child needs to be taught. You can help them connect the dots. They will inevitably say something like, "But I didn't know that was Mrs. Z's candy!" To which you reply, "Yes, but you know it's not yours, right? It doesn't matter who it belongs to you when you know it's not yours. That's stealing. I know you didn't think it was, but that's the definition of stealing." And so on. The child made a mistake, but did not mean to go against your teaching. There was just a connection that didn't happen.
Try not to react out of embarrassment. I have done this as a parent, and I have seen other parents do it. In cases such as these, it's easy to overreact. You are upset at the child, and you are also embarrassed. There can be a temptation to show everyone that you are appalled by really coming down hard on the kid. This is the time to remember that it's really not about you.
There should be discipline of some kind, but it should be a chance to learn, not to be punished or humiliated. Paying for the stolen or damaged item and a sincere apology can go a long way.
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