What do you do with a 5 year old shoplifter?
October 7, 2008 2:55 PM   Subscribe

So, what's the current Received Wisdom on what to do when you get home and find that your 5 year old has lifted a couple pieces of candy at the grocery store without benefit of payment?

Yeah, I know, take the kid back to the store, and let the manager have *his* theatrical moment in the sun scaring the bejeezus out of the kid, then pay him and move along.

But this is WalMart. Lots of stupid people work at WalMart.

Lots of cops are stupid enough to actually arrest a 5 year old these days.

So we're pretty sure we're going to pass on that one. Any other ideas?

[ Interesting that we don't have parenting as a category... ]
posted by baylink to Human Relations (35 answers total)
Response by poster: It occurs to me that I should mention that said 5 year old is on Focalin XR for ADHD (which helps, measurably), and that this shopping trip was right about the time it starts to wear off for the day. Jekyll and Hyde. Really.

If you have one (or are one), you know.
posted by baylink at 2:57 PM on October 7, 2008

Lots of cops are stupid enough to actually arrest a 5 year old these days.

that's ridiculous. I'm sure even the "stupid walmart person" will know how to perform the "well this is very serious but thank you for being honest" routine - it happens all the time.
posted by moxiedoll at 3:02 PM on October 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Most police departments have a "youth officer" who would be the perfect person to talk to your son if you call him in advance and set things up with him/her.
posted by mmf at 3:05 PM on October 7, 2008

Lots of cops are stupid enough to actually arrest a 5 year old these days.

I agree with moxiedoll and don't think this is a legitimate worry.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 3:06 PM on October 7, 2008

Our oldest son did something similar when he was very young, at OUR Walmart, and we took him in to bring the item in question (I think it was a little keychain thing) back and apologize, very tearfully, to the manager. Nobody is going to arrest your kid, and it has a BIG impression on the child, which is not a bad thing.
posted by misha at 3:07 PM on October 7, 2008

Because it isn't the stupid person working at WalMart's responsibility to lecture your child, and because s/he probably has larger product-loss fish to fry (if indeed s/he cares enough to fry the fish at all), let your kid know they're in trouble, but do it from home.
posted by boy detective at 3:09 PM on October 7, 2008

Seconding 'do it from home'. There's no telling how exactly the WalMart manager will handle the matter - they might even shrug it off and say it's no big deal. Your normal degree of serious telling-off ought to be enough in the first instance, particularly given your child's age. If it happens again, then maybe consider phoning ahead to set up a stern talking-to from a scary authority figure.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 3:18 PM on October 7, 2008

The problem with lecturing from home is that it doesn't atone for theft, or fix the problem, which is something important (I think) to convey to your kids. Maybe you can go with your child and put the candy back in the store (on a table or customer service desk or whatever) after a stern talking-to?
posted by Solon and Thanks at 3:23 PM on October 7, 2008

At the age of five, his intent was probably not totally malicious. Kids that age often try things just to see what will happen.*

So while this is definitely something that needs to be addressed, I don't think you need to take your child back to the store. I think you can have a serious, effective conversation about why stealing is wrong without scaring the crap out of him.

*In pre-school I pulled my friend's chair out from under her when she stood up...so she fell down when she tried to sit. I wasn't trying to hurt her, I just wanted to see what would happen.
posted by radioamy at 3:24 PM on October 7, 2008

I agree with boy detective that you should do it yourself but for a different reason. I would not want to take the risk of the interaction with a stranger (Walmart or Saks) being too intense for a 5 year old.

> If you have one (or are one), you know.

I know.
posted by cosmac at 3:26 PM on October 7, 2008

If it makes you feel any better, Mr. Allstar totally walked out of a Walmart with a gallon of milk one time without paying (totally on accident, he was spacing out). He got home and realized what he had done, went back to the customer service desk and told them what happened. They just laughed at him, and then took his money. I really doubt they'd call the cops over your 5 year old taking some candy.
posted by All.star at 3:29 PM on October 7, 2008

The cops wouldn't get involved with this because he's too young to be considered culpable for anything. I would probably skip letting the manager give the kid 'the talk' as there are people out there who don't know how to talk to kids appropriately.

I say give him the talk yourself and deal with the store separately.
posted by mattholomew at 3:35 PM on October 7, 2008

Response by poster: Perhaps it's overthinking to believe that the manager might react that way...

but it's not a neighborhood grocery store where you know everyone; it's Wal*Mart. You know, 5 million in inventory in just that store, 275 employees, etc, etc.





So... maybe not so much.

I guess I'll walk in myself first, and scope out the manager...
posted by baylink at 3:37 PM on October 7, 2008

Nthing taking care of it at home, in your own words. The kid's 5, I don't think having a manager telling him off is really going to help.

Not that is was the same situation, but I was once at a large furniture/home accessory store where a friend of mine works, we were chatting along since not a lot of people were around. There was a Dad there with a little girl of about that same age, she was running around a bit (nothing major or disruptive). He came up to my friend and asked her to call his daughter aside and tell her off because "the impact would be greater". My friend, who luckily is good with kids, called her, knelt down, and told her she shouldn't run around because she could injure herself and go to the hospital and have stitches (or something to that effect). The kid listened, said "okay", looked up at Dad, and they both moved along. My friend then told me that type of thing happens a lot, parents actually want perfect strangers to tell off their own kids instead of - the shock, the horror - doing it themselves. I for one wouldn't want to be one of these parents.
posted by neblina_matinal at 3:39 PM on October 7, 2008

I think the most important thing is that the kid gets a spanking, and then gets to watch while you put the candy down the garbage disposal.
posted by Class Goat at 3:48 PM on October 7, 2008

Response by poster: Well, neb, I have an interesting folo on that.

I've known M for 10 years, but she disappeared for a while and had the 2 kids (5 and 2), and then reappeared. We've been some flavor of involved ever since.

Every once in a while (or oncet in a while, as we would have said it Up North :-) I will find myself charged as babysitter or taxidriver or whatnot... and I have nowhere *near* the trouble putting them to bed or getting them to not act up in the car, or what have you.

She says it's because they *know* she's never going anywhere, so they can press her harder.

This seems related to the situation you posit with the store manager, somehow...
posted by baylink at 3:56 PM on October 7, 2008

The candy needs to get back to the store. You did not pay for it. It is not yours. Whether you involve your child with that or not is up for debate.

If it were me, I would give the child a good talking to. I would then take the unpaid merchandise back to the store and tell the manager/customer service person that it appears that you did not pay for the merchandise and you are now returning it after realizing it wasn't properly paid for. I would probably take my child with me for that. He doesn't need to be involved at all. He can just be standing there holding your hand, but I think it would be an effective lesson of him seeing the situation rectified.
posted by Sassyfras at 3:58 PM on October 7, 2008 [4 favorites]

Well, that's my point - just because it's easier doesn't make it right. If you can put the kids to bed just fine, why can't she? That to me just proves the kids can and will behave. If they don't with their parent/s, then something is missing in the everyday-mommy-and/or-daddy-routine. It's kinda like when you were in 8th grade and everybody misbehaved in Geometry class but everybody was on their best behaviour in Science class.

Disclaimer: IANAParent. It's much easier this way.
posted by neblina_matinal at 4:16 PM on October 7, 2008

Having been on the recieving end of this type of thing I'll say that the point isn't the lecture of from the store manager. The point is having to face the 'victim' of the 'crime' and fess up. It is traumatic and that is part of the power of the lesson.

Whatever you do, the kid must lose the object he stole. If you take him to the store, he apologizes and then you pay for the thing and give it to him that is conveying the wrong lesson.

Either the store takes it back or you pay for it but in either case the boy can't get the benefit of the thing he took.

In my case, it was a pack of gum. Up to that point I didn't know there were concepts of stealing or even paying, for that matter, but my folks made me throw the gum in the garbage. I don't have many memories from that age but this one has stuck with me in great detail.
posted by trinity8-director at 4:17 PM on October 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I agree with Sassyfras; the child doesn't need a lecture or reprimand or whatever from the store manager, but I think it's important that your child see how you properly resolve this type of situation, whether you return the merchandise or pay for it.
posted by curie at 4:36 PM on October 7, 2008

I would call ahead and tell the manager your child stole some candy. Tell him or her that you want to come pay for the candy and make your child apologize. Ask that he/she or someone else be willing to be appropriately stern about stealing but thank your child for being honest.
posted by Nattie at 5:03 PM on October 7, 2008

In my case, it was a pack of gum. Up to that point I didn't know there were concepts of stealing or even paying, for that matter, but my folks made me throw the gum in the garbage. I don't have many memories from that age but this one has stuck with me in great detail.

Wow, weird, one of my earliest memories was about the same. I was caught opening gum and eating it in the checkout line. My mother made me apologize to the cashier while she paid for the pack--and then tossed the rest.

(I'm pretty sure I cried. I was horrified. And then, even when I was a teenager, never shoplifted again).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:03 PM on October 7, 2008

Asking a manager to reprimand your kid puts them in a weird position -- and that's after you determine the manager in question isn't a moron, or some disffected micromanaging maniac that will do more harm than good to your message, not to mention your son.

From waiting on people, and from working in a museum, I have sometimes been asked to tell someone's kids the what-for -- or I've overheard people saying to their kids, "You had better behave, or this lady here is going to whip you!" I hate this brand of garbage. I support bringing the kid with you, so he can apologize when you return the item and explain the situation, but I don't think it's a great move to ask someone else to discipline your child. Even if they don't screw it up bigtime, it's really asking a lot out of a stranger.

I also don't think you're necessarily wrong to worry that some hired goons might move in on your son. Years ago, I was acquainted with a manager of a girls' accessories store who took great pleasure in calling police/security/whomever in to hassle very young shoplifters. That's not evidence these types of managers are everywhere by any means, but they do exist, and it's reasonable to screen beforehand the person your kid will be interacting with, just to make sure.
posted by Coatlicue at 5:11 PM on October 7, 2008

My little brother once stole a bunch of a erasers from a school supply store. I can't recall how old he was at the time, but he couldn't have been more than 7. (He also has ADD. Conicidence?)

When my mom found out, she gave him a good lecturing, piled us all back into the car, and took my little brother back to the store where she had him return the stolen goods and apologize to the store manager. No lecture from the manager required, my brother was sufficiently sorry already.

If you are concerned about the manager's reaction, I would second the suggestion of calling ahead to inform them of the situation and your plan to remedy it.
posted by geeky at 5:11 PM on October 7, 2008

I was kind of a chronic shoplifter when I was young, and now that I'm grown up I'm stealing factories and quarries and such. Capice? Seriously though, my mom never made me face any store clerks to tell them what I did, and I think that was a mistake. I never felt that stealing from stores had any real impact on anyone until I got older, and by then I'd stolen quite a lot of stuff and realized my self esteem was harmed more than anything else.
posted by Koko at 5:50 PM on October 7, 2008

Lots and lots of epic fails in this answer.

Doing it from home shows your child that when you're afraid, it's ok to do things half-assed and incompletely. You keep the candy at home (even if you toss it), and NOT take it back to the store, you've reinforced that it's only bad if you get caught, and that once you do something you can't fess up.

Don't call the manager, manager doesn't care about 50 cents of candy enough to talk to you on the phone AND deal with you in person with some prescripted thing you've worked out. Doing that reinforces that your son is super duper important in the world and that customer service people really should answer to his every beck and call.

Go in, go to the customer service desk. Very nicely ask to speak with a front end manager. When the manager gets there, you own the conversation, stating that your son has something he'd like to share. Son says "I took this", and then you say "we've come to return this to you, and to apologize for taking your time to deal with our dishonesty, would you please be willing to let us pay for it now?" And the manager will say yes, and then you talk about how stealing is bad and blah blah blah. This is your conversation to have, not the managers---he's just the means to an end.

Also, many chores must be done to pay for the candy. Many, many chores.
posted by TomMelee at 6:11 PM on October 7, 2008 [4 favorites]

When my son was about 5 years old, he and I had a strange experience at our Walmart. I inadvertently left a pair of tweezers in the basket when checking out. We both noticed it in the parking lot when I was unloading the cart. His eyes widened and he said, "Mom, you stole that." I responded that it was an accident, that we will return to the store and explain that it was overlooked in our basket and we need to pay for it. Being a parent, I didn't miss this golden opportunity to talk about honesty, etc.

The greeter was the first employee we met in the store. I told him what had happened, he smiled at me and my son, told him we were doing the right thing. We then walked to the nearest cashier. I told her I didn't see the tweezers in my cart until I was outside and that I needed to pay for them. She looked at me as if I was crazy, she said, "You walked all the way back here to pay for a pair of tweezers?" "Yes" I said. She then said, "You should of just kept them."

I was horrified! I insisted on paying for the tweezers. She just shook her head the whole time, mumbling under her breath. I then went to customer service and asked for the store manager. I told him how this cashier acted towards us. He was shocked, he assured my son that we were correct in paying for the tweezers, he said he would have a talk with the cashier and apologized to us.

I vote for having him return the candy to the manager.
posted by JujuB at 6:16 PM on October 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would also involve the manager, preferably by calling ahead first, or making strong use of eye contact, to be sure you do get a useful reaction from him/her.

I think it's important to demonstrate that this is A Big Deal, not just something that got you in trouble because "mommy and daddy will get mad".

Kids who grow up with mommy and daddy as the ONLY arbiters of authority or legality or morality are not healthy, well rounded children... in my little opinion. I think they need to learn how to exist in a wider social sphere.
posted by rokusan at 6:27 PM on October 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Also, if I remember Wal-Marts correctly (it's been awhile), there's a big picture of the manager along with his phone number AT the customer service desk. So they WANT community interaction as part of their feel-good neighborhood involvement schtick.
posted by rokusan at 6:28 PM on October 7, 2008

I've had the same kind of experience as JujuB where you are honest and the WalMart cashier says, "Um you're complaining because you paid too much!" and looks at you like you're a moron. Also, my son is short and ticket checkers at movies, basketball games, etc. would say, "Why did you buy a ticket for him!" like I should have lies and said my 5 year old was two. You can't count on the WalMart employee acting the right way. I've also heard a WalMart employee tell a child she should be spanked for saying, "heck." (The mother couldn't really hear her.)

I agree with TomMelee - go to a manager type person and stay completely in charge of the conversation.
posted by artychoke at 8:28 PM on October 7, 2008

Are you 100% sure that it was his intent to steal, and that he understood what he was doing? I have a 4-year-old boy and a 7-year-old boy, and neither of them has made exactly this mistake, but we've had similar things come up. Often when they do make mistakes of the unacceptable-social-behavior kind, their intentions weren't evil. They were either trying to get a need met ("I was so hungry!") or they just didn't realize that what they were doing wasn't OK, or they spaced out ("I didn't mean to put it in my pocket"), or something else like that.

We are often able to resolve these kinds of things without getting all punitive. We tend to ascribe positive motives to our kids and to assume that they want to be behaving appropriately and fitting in, and that our job is to help them do that.

So, for instance, when something like this happens with my kids, I ask them to tell me, as best they can, what was going on. If the answer to "I helped myself to a cookie from the bulk bin" is "I was hungry," then I'd say, "If you're hungry next time, let me know and we can get a bagel from the bakery."

We also tend to take a "making amends" rather than punitive approach. So, even if I didn't lecture or punish, I would say, "We can't keep this without paying for it," and either take it back or make a note on the grocery list to pay for it next time we went in (though that might be too long a time gap for a kid to make the connection). That's what I did when I accidentally forgot to pay for two bagels I grabbed in the bakery section to keep the kids happy during a long grocery shopping; I asked the clerk to ring them up the next time we went shopping.

I also consider whether there's a lesson for me in what happened. In your case, that might be perhaps not taking your son shopping just when his meds are wearing off--I don't know. But I do know there are things we don't do at certain times of day when one of the kids is more likely to melt down or have trouble controlling himself.

I don't think kids need to be frightened or traumatized to learn a lesson like this. Our kids have certainly modified problem behaviors without our resorting to such measures. Unless this is part of a pattern of behavior, I have to go against the grain and argue that a 5-year-old swiping a couple of pieces of candy is NOT a big deal. It's not something to ignore, but it doesn't need anyone going ballistic over it, either.
posted by not that girl at 8:55 PM on October 7, 2008

Wow... At the risk of standing out the crowd... A few pieces of candy, right? Worth, maybe, what, 10 cents?! My word, Walmart will never miss the 10 cents of revenue that they make every microsecond - leave them out of this. At 5 years old (and I know because I teach them) they're not always fully cognizant of what's happening around them, if what they do actually has consequences, and so on. Being on drugs is probably hard enough, and having their efforts wearing off probably freaks the kid out a little. Go easy on the kid. If it happens again or with something bigger, then's the time to take action.
posted by chrisinseoul at 2:49 AM on October 8, 2008

Seconding 'do it from home'. There's no telling how exactly the WalMart manager will handle the matter - they might even shrug it off and say it's no big deal

This, and have him write an apology, stick it in a manila envelope, walk him to the mailbox, and mail it and the candy to back to Walmart anonymously.

I agree that there are a lot of different types of people you might find managing a Walmart, and they're not all types you want delivering this message to your son, or even, as someone mentioned, the message you want to give.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:16 AM on October 8, 2008

When I was about five, I stole a gummy candy from the grocery store. When my mother discovered what I had done, she sat me down and explained the severity of the situation-- that stealing is wrong, that it means the store can make less money, and that I had no right to do that. She then gave me the option of returning to the store where, "the manager might call the police and they might take you to jail, because that's what happens to thieves" or spending the rest of the day in my room, thinking about what I had done.

I chose time-out.
posted by Flamingo at 7:05 AM on October 8, 2008

As a store manager I've had parents:
a) bring kids in to admit to stealing very small cheap things and return them. Kid was plainly terrified and upset enough. I thanked them for returning the item and said it wasn't my job to punish them - that was up to their parents. I did this as much to let the parent know that I wasn't about to get angry at / otherwise punish their kid. I'd also point out that our store is pretty friendly to kids and they're welcome to come back. I don't need a theatrical moment to exert my authority over an issue that is relatively minor. (But then I manage a small store, not some super corporate megamall where every penny counts.)
b) make kids write letters confessing to stealing very small cheap things, which they then mailed to my store with the item in question or money to cover the cost. I think each one of these contained no return address so there was nothing I could do in response.

Personally I agree with those saying this needs to be dealt with at home. As a parent, my first questions would be - is this the first time it happened, and did your child own up to this when you got home or did you discover it by chance? If the former then personally I would thank them for being honest with you, calmly explain why stealing is wrong, take the candy from them and find some minor punishment like losing a week's allowance. If the latter then I would still explain why it's wrong, why you are disappointed in them, and find a larger punishment such as no tv for a week / no candy for a week / whatever. Explain that if it happens again the punishment will be more severe. For a first time thing I would not go back to the store. I might do something symbolic like taking the stolen candy and food bought with the missed allowance to the foodbank. (So long as I was clear that stealing from the rich to give to the poor may have worked for Robin Hood, but isn't a wise lifestyle choice these days.)

[And just one example of when being honest to an authority figure maybe is important - when others potentially stand to get in trouble for your actions. My daughter came home one day earlier this year very upset about something and after a little persuasion she confessed that she had used an electronic dictionary at her daycare to look up 'bad' words. One of her friends knew about it. The caregivers were trying to find who it was and were threatening consequences to all children unless somebody owned up. At first she was terrified that if she owned up to it, or if her friend told them, she would be kicked out of school / be hated for ever by the caregivers / something else awful. After some calm talking she agreed to call the daycare and explain that it was her, and to agree not to do it again. The caregiver was wonderful about it - thanked her for being honest, that she had not suspected my daughter at all, that it was likely to be one of the boys. By being honest she had shown that she was brave, and had saved others from unnecessary punishment. That was the end of it - no other repercussions from us all the daycare. But a few days later she did tell me that she realised it was the right thing to do.]
posted by valleys at 8:14 AM on October 8, 2008

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