What We Did When Our 4-Year-Old Stole From PreSchool

I found out recently that my four-year-old daughter stole something. She stole something from her preschool, and I want to tell you about how we handled the situation with discipline versus punishment.

This is the first time she’s ever taken anything that wasn’t hers. We have definitely talked with her about stealing.  She’s has asked, multiple times, what does stealing mean?  And I’ve always explained that if you take something that doesn’t belong to you, or if you take money that doesn’t belong to you, or if you go to the store and you take a piece of candy that doesn’t belong to you, that is stealing.

So we’ve talked a lot about what stealing means and what it looks like, but I think in the mind of a child there’s a difference between talking about in theory and talking about it in practice.

Here’s what happened. We’re at home, and she went into her room to get her little miniature farm toy doll collection and brought it all back out to the kitchen table. While she was building a farm, she looks over and said, “Mommy, look at the little girl. She’s standing on her step.” I thought, “Okay.” I looked over, and I see this little square plastic toy thing that I hadn’t ever seen before, and I was like, “Where did you get that?” because I’m thinking maybe she took it out of… I don’t know, out of something of her dad’s. I have no idea where it came from, because it wasn’t actually fun, or cool, or cute, or colorful. It was just this little gray square box thing.

She said, “Oh, it’s from my school,” and I immediately asked, “From school? What do you mean, from school?” She said, “Well, it’s from one of the activity centers,” and I said, “Did you bring it home?” and she said, “Yeah.” She said, “I put it in my little pocket, and I brought it home.” I thought, “Oh.” So I said, “You stole it?” and watching her little face crumple, it’s like it just dawned on her and she said, “Yeah.”

That’s why I said I think that there’s a difference between talking about stealing and then having it actually happen because she knows what stealing is. If you ask her, “What’s stealing?” she would know, but I don’t think that she actually connected the dots in her head that she was stealing something, because her face just kind of fell, and she said, “Oh, no.”

So I told her, “Honey, you can’t take things that don’t belong to you. That belongs to the school.” She said, “yeah” with a downcast face. I said, “So we’re going to need to take that back to your teachers and you to need to apologize for taking it, because it’s not yours.”

She said, “Okay, mommy,” and we just left it at that, because the one thing that I don’t want to do is shame her. I don’t want her to think, “What’s wrong with me?” Because there’s nothing wrong with her. She’s four! She doesn’t know about this stuff yet.

Not only that, shame doesn’t work. When you shame your kids, it rarely works. In fact, I don’t think it ever works. Anyway, I didn’t want to shame her, even though the mommy part of me wanted to be like, “Why did you do that? You can’t do that!”

I let it go until the next school day and then I pulled one of her teachers aside and I explained to her what happened. I had the little piece and I showed it to her, and she said, “I’m not sure I even know what that is.” I told her, “It’s from an activity center,” and she said, “Oh, okay. I know what it’s for.” I told her, “We’ve already talked and she wants to clean up her mess.”

Cleaning up your mess is a term we use in our community when we make a mistake. When you make a mess, you clean it up. What does that look like? In this case, cleaning up her mess looks like taking the toy, the little tiny thing that she had, giving it back to her teacher, and apologizing for taking something that didn’t belong to her.

After I had explained to her teacher what was going on, Iasked, “Will you help us have a teachable moment?” Her teacher was so sweet. She was like, “Yes, I would love to.” So, we went in, and I handed her the little piece, and I said, “Okay, sweetie. You know what you need to do. I want you to clean up your mess.” She immediately took the piece, and went over to her teacher and said, “Miss R I took this and I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have done that. It’s not mine, and I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”

Her teacher replied, “It’s okay, sweetie. Thank you so much for bringing it back. I appreciate you being honest and bringing it back to us. How about in the future, let’s just leave the toys at school and you can play with them here whenever you want. Okay?” My oldest was like, “Okay.” Miss R gave her a hug, and my daughter went on her way.

I feel like…honestly, for me, it was handled perfectly, because after we explained to her, she realized what she had done was wrong. She was more than willing to clean up her mess. In her own little four-year-old way, she was repentant. I know she felt bad. So she was willing to clean up her mess, in fact, I didn’t even have to ask her to do it and her teacher handled it beautifully. She forgave her, but cautioned, “Let’s not do that again.” The impression left in my little four-year-old’s mind is that she made a mistake, she apologized, and we’re moving forward.

Obviously, in the future, if it’s something bigger, different circumstances are going to call for different reactions, and different types of discipline. I’m not going to ground my four-year-old for taking a little piece of plastic from her school. As she gets older, situations may change, but I feel like for her age, this was handled perfectly. There’s no shame. She probably won’t do it again. When she gets older she may decide to be sneaky, but that’s different. That’s totally different than what we had happen here the other day, so…

I wanted to talk about the way we handled this. I will be completely honest, though, I did consult with my parents because I thought, “What am I going to do? This is a teachable moment, but how do I handle this?” I’m grateful for the wisdom of parents and grandparents…this is definitely not all me. I’m grateful for their wisdom and I wanted to share that with you guys. I appreciate you visiting today.

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