Photo by Erin Zammett Ruddy
A few weeks ago I punished my son in a way that I had been punished as a child. I felt like I taught him an important lesson and was proud of myself —but now I wonder if it was the right thing to do.
The backstory: Over the holidays, I took my three young children into a fancy chocolate shop to buy a hostess gift. That alone was a recipe for disaster but I implored them not to touch anything or act like wild animals. I was feeling pretty good about the outing until halfway home when I peeked in the rearview mirror and noticed my 7-year-old son playing with a plastic noisemaker. “Um, where did you get that, Alex?!” “Did you buy it?” Did I buy it?” “Did you take it?!” Long story short: He had stolen the toy. I kept my cool—even when he said, “but it was only a $1.50, mom!”—and explained why it was unacceptable to take things we didn’t buy. I also said he would be returning to the store to apologize and return the item.
A few hours later, I marched my son back to the store with two dollars from his piggy bank. I stood by the door as he walked sheepishly to the counter and told the clerk that he had taken something without paying for it, that he was sorry and that he would pay for it now. (He couldn’t return the thing because in typical 7-year-old fashion, he broke it on the way home.) Tears streamed down my cheeks as I watched him fidget nervously and search the clerk’s face for a sign of approval.
I felt a little cruel for embarrassing my normally law-abiding child like that—and I know exactly how awful he was feeling. Returning to the scene of the crime is the same shame-inducing punishment I received when I was five and stole something from a hardware store. I remember my dad pulling a tire-screeching U-turn and sending me back to return the item. (I recall it being a nut or a bolt — not sure what the allure was there.) It remains one of my clearest childhood memories, and as much as I thought my dad overreacted, his actions helped shape me throughout my life.
After that mortifying day, I never stole again. When some of my friends went through a klepto-phase, snagging snap bracelets from the drug store or Razzles from the 7-11, I stayed home. One time in junior high, we all planned to ditch a cab but I secretly left $10 on the seat. My dad taught me such an important lesson 30 years ago and I saw an opportunity to do the same for my son.
Fortunately, the clerk at the chocolate shop was gracious. She told my son he had done the right thing and when she caught my eye, I smiled in thanks and we left. I told my son that I was proud of him and to remember how awful the experience felt. We left it at that. My son is tough and confident so I knew it wouldn’t unravel him to face the music but I still tear up at the memory.
As it turns out, my father did know best. “Returning to the store is absolutely the right thing to do,” Laura Markham, Ph.D., a New York City-based child psychologist and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kid, tells Yahoo Parenting. “Many children steal—they’re not born knowing the rules so it’s our job to teach them and it’s not by smacking their hand every time they break the rule — it’s by lovingly setting limits.”
And staying calm when you set them. “If you overreact or yell, you might create a fascination with the behavior and a willful child will be more likely to rebel against it,” she says. Having a child physically return the stolen item helps him or her grasp the situation—and the consequence.
What could I have done better? When I realized my son had the toy I should have pulled over and taken it away from him. “When a child steals, take the item away immediately,” says Markham. “If he has it, he will start to think it belongs to him.” (Or accidentally break it, as my son did.) Pulling over also would have been a calm way to punctuate the gravity of the situation.
As for the aftermath, Markham suggests delivering this script: “That was a hard thing to do. I’m very proud of you and you should be proud of yourself. It was the right thing to do. We cannot take what isn’t ours no matter what.”
But don’t dwell on it. “If you continuously bring up the incident, the child will believe they’re a thief, that they’re bad,” she says. “You want them to think about themselves as someone who made a wrong choice but made it better—and who intends to make right choices in the future.”
Only time will tell if this shoplifting experience will have the same profound effect on my son as it had on me, but in the meantime I can rest assured that I haven’t screwed him up. Yet. Here’s to old-fashioned parenting!