An Unlikely Thief

Jonathan gave his wife $350 for Christmas shopping at Walmart. When they checked out, the money was missing. His six-year-old had taken the money. How should they punish her?

QUESTION: Jonathan in Grand Rapids gave his wife $350 for Christmas shopping at Walmart. While they were there, his wife cashed her paycheck to also go toward Christmas. When they checked out, the money was missing. His six-year-old had taken the money. How should they punish her?

ANSWER: I agree with you that the majority of six-year-olds have no idea how big a deal this was. I’m just thinking as a parent, more than a money thing, this is something of value. It could have been a ring, earrings, a purse, a wallet. It was someone else’s stuff. It wasn’t hers. She took it, and then she lied about it, and there was no sorrow for the action. The lying and the lack of repentance or sorrow associated with the action are my biggest problems here—not the fact that it’s money. I’ve got a very short fuse for lying, and right after that for thieving, and after that for not being sorry about it.

If I’m you, I’m getting with this kid’s mom, and we’re going to have a discussion because I’m coming down on this little turkey. You do not want this—as you said—to ever happen again. And this is lying, stealing, and even maybe worse than those two things at six years old is not feeling badly about it. You can get away with a lot of stuff if you actually come clean and tell the truth about what happened, and if she didn’t understand this was a big deal and is contrite. Then, I would probably give almost no punishment because the child got that this was a violation. This kid doesn’t get it. The lack of realizing this is wrong is the biggest fear here. You’ve got to do something to drive a stake in this. It’s often difficult with an ex to have a unified front with kids, but if there’s any way you can, I think the two of you sit down with her and explain the three violations.

Nip it in the bud. If you can, provide a unified front and talk through it, and like any kind of punishment-associated behavior, let her know very clearly why she’s being punished. This is a violation that we cannot allow to expand, and the purpose of punishment is to keep that from happening.