Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sue Scheff: Why Kids Steal

“[Teens] shoplift all the time. They do think about the consequences, but they don’t think of it as being too major until they get caught, of course.”

– Ryan, 17 years old

The new shoplifting numbers are out and they are staggering: 35 billion dollars in losses and 92 percent of all retailers were victims, up 8 percent over 2007. An estimated one in four teens has shoplifted. Why they do it and what you can do to prevent your child from stealing.

A man sees a compact disc he likes, so he hides it in his pants. A girl stuffs something she wants in her purse, and still another pretends to try on a shirt, but behind dressing room doors, she steals it.

All of these cases are re-enactments played out for television news cameras. But teens say that in real life, shoplifting happens all of the time.

“Yeah, a lot,” 17-year-old Nicole smiles coyly.

Ryan, 17, says teens are more likely to steal, ”clothes, necklaces or stuff that’s easily fittable.”

So why do some teens shoplift?

“Because they don’t want to pay for it,” explains Keke, 14.

Often, the reasons vary. Some children steal because of peer pressure, to get attention, to be rebellious or simply because it’s exciting.

“Part of what makes something thrilling is knowing that it’s forbidden, knowing that you are not supposed to do it, knowing that you could get in trouble if you get caught,” explains psychologist Dr. Gary Santavicca.

But in some ways, he says, the reasons don’t matter.

“The last thing we want to do is communicate to the youngsters that having reasons, having motives, having excuses, having a charming manner is going to get them out of the obligation to respect other people’s property; to be concerned about what is harmful to others, what is illegal and what is wrong,” Dr. Santavicca says.

He says parents must act as a moral compass for very young children, but older kids need to rely on their own conscience.

“We want that voice to come from within,” Dr. Santavicca says.

Short of that, experts say that parents should monitor their children’s activities and take a mental inventory of the items they possess. New, unexplained merchandise may signal that a child is shoplifting. If stealing becomes habit, professional help may be needed.

Tips for Parents

Who shoplifts? According to the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), teens do. Experts say that many teens want to see if they can “get away with it.” They often rationalize their criminal behavior, using excuses like, “This is a big store, they can afford it,” “Taking this item won’t really hurt anyone” or “Stores just write it off as a business expense.” But the truth is a storekeeper loses money each time something is stolen and must raise prices to make up the loss. Shoplifting is a major economic problem in the United States. Consider these facts from the NCPC:

■Shoplifters steal an estimated $25 million in merchandise from stores each day.
■One-fourth of apprehended shoplifters are teens between the ages of 13 and 17 years old.
■Most shoplifters are “amateurs,” not professional thieves.
■Most shoplifters are customers who steal frequently from places where they regularly shop.
■Some shoplifters are professional thieves who make their living by stealing and selling goods.
■Drug addicts shoplift to support their habit.
■Desperate people steal because they need food, but they make up only a very small number of shoplifters.
■Kleptomaniacs (who have a mental disorder that makes it difficult to overcome their urge to steal) make up a tiny minority of shoplifters.
The NCPC says that many teens shoplift on a dare, thinking their friends will call them “chicken” if they don’t accept the challenge. Others steal for a thrill. The Nemours Foundation says that 70% of the time, nonprofessional shoplifters don’t go into a store with the intention of stealing – they simply see the opportunity to take something and do so.

Is your child shoplifting? You should be suspicious if you notice the following signs:

■Your child suddenly comes into possession of extra money but has no job to account for the added wealth.
■Your child possesses luxuries like an expensive new CD player or a new watch and can’t explain how he or she obtained the merchandise.
■Your child becomes secretive about what he or she does during certain times of the day (like after school.)
■You child buys expensive gifts for family and friends and can’t explain how he or she can afford them.

The Center for Effective Parenting (CEP) suggests the following methods to prevent the onset of stealing behavior in your child:

■Discuss and explain why stealing is wrong: Make sure that your child knows why stealing is wrong. Point out that stealing means taking something that rightfully belongs to someone else.
■Teach ownership: It is a good idea for parents to begin teaching their children early on what ownership means. Explain that people have a right to their own property and that it is wrong to take something that belongs to someone else.
■Teach appropriate ways of getting what one wants: Teach your child how to get what he or she wants without stealing. For example, suggest that your child ask for items he or she wants, save up money to buy the items he or she wants, etc.
■Model appropriate behavior: Set a good example for your child by asking before borrowing items, by not taking items that don’t belong to you and by being open and honest.
■Develop a close, open relationship with your child: Make every effort to communicate effectively with your child. Children who are close to their parents are much more likely to take on their parents’ beliefs and values than children who don’t have a close relationship with their parents.
■Praise and reward honest behavior: Make every attempt to praise your child for being honest. The more you praise your child’s honesty, the more likely he or she will continue to be honest in the future.
The CEP offers this advice to parents who are dealing with a child who has already committed an act of theft:

■Remain calm: If you discover that your child has stolen something, it is very important not to overreact. Keep in mind that all children take items that don’t belong to them at one time or another.
■Confront quickly: Just as it’s important not to overreact, it is also important not to under-react. Confront your child and deal with the stealing immediately. The longer stealing is allowed to continue uncorrected, the more difficult it is to correct later.
■Apply consequences: Decide what the specific consequences are for stealing, and apply them every time stealing occurs. Inform your child of these consequences before they are implemented.

■Center for Effective Parenting
■National Crime Prevention Council
■Nemours Foundation
■Shoplifters Alternative

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