When Children Steal Money at Home What’s Normal and when to Worry

Until a child is four or five, money is just a thing. They haven’t yet absorbed the power it has in today’s society, so if a child steals money from his or her parents, it is something to be discussed and discouraged, but probably not something to be worried about.

Let me give you an example that illustrates when a child realizes it’s wrong to steal money. In Canada, we have a large chain called “Canadian Tire.” At CT, if you pay in cash, they give you rebates in Canadian Tire Money. They’ve been doing this for years, and it’s a great customer loyalty program. The money is well-designed, intended for future purchases, and most Canadian homes have little stashes of it in their kitchen junk drawers and car glove boxes. When our youngest son was three, he decided he wanted to collect it and use it to buy a toy one day. He had a little box and stashed his money in the box.

One day, our oldest son, then almost five, came to me. You could tell he was very concerned about something. You see, he had evidence that our youngest son was stealing. He wasn’t at all gleeful about getting his brother in trouble. He was worried about him. So, he opened up his brother’s box, and mixed in with the pink Canadian Tire money were real $50 bills, also pink! Our youngest son, over a period of months, had stolen about $300. Upon discussing this with our youngest son, we found out that he had discovered that if you opened the freezer door of our fridge, the money that my husband had placed there when he emptied his pockets after work often rained down upon you, and it was a reliable source of pretty pink $50 bills. (How my husband never figured out that he was losing so much money is another issue!) He had placed it in his collection.

To our younger son, there was no different value attached to the real money than to the Canadian Tire money. We had told him that any CT money was his to keep, and he had collected both the real and the fake. We explained the difference and you could tell he felt no guilt over what he had done. He was not punished. Our older son, on the other hand, had reached an age where the value of money was apparent. He was genuinely worried about what his younger brother had done and knew it was wrong.

Based on this, I would say that when a child takes money after age five or six, he or she probably knows that it is wrong and there should be a solid discussion of why it is wrong and then consequences. Before that, parents should recognize that the child has probably not reached a stage of moral development where money is anything other than interesting paper, and should not worry.