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How I Ended My Child's Career as a Thief

What my daughter's thievery taught me about parenting (and the Marble Jar.)

If you’ve never had to march into CVS with your child’s shoulder gripped in one hand and a pack of stolen gum in the other, congratulations.  I never did either. I made my husband do it.

Hey, I shop at that CVS all the time. I wasn’t doing it.

The gum taken from CVS was the pinnacle of Joey’s short career as a thief.  Luckily, she wasn’t very good as a career criminal, and she got caught when she took lipgloss, a piece of chocolate, and then, the gum in question.

My husband and I went back and forth about how exactly to address this situation.  We told Joey how disappointed we were in her. We yelled. We punished. These things did not help.  At all.

Ultimately, it wasn’t a show of force or the grand wielding of our parental authority that got Joey to stop stealing. It was giving her an allowance.

Sitting down with a five year old to try and find out why she’s doing anything is often a daunting task. It’s even worse when she knows you’re upset about the thing in question.  It took a while to get to the bottom of it, but it turns out Joey was taking things she wanted that she knew I wouldn’t buy for her.

Once I knew that, it became clear that what the kid needed was some money.  I certainly wasn’t going to just hand her some.  

So we came up with the Marble Jar.  It’s a fairly simple system. Throughout the week, Joey has certain things she is responsible for. Each of these things is worth one marble and each of the marbles is worth ten cents. When she does one of them, we put a marble in her jar. She can earn extra marbles for going above and beyond, or helping me with something that isn’t usually her responsibility.  On Friday, she gets the worth of the marbles in cash, up to five bucks. Almost like having a job.

Then we typically hit Walmart and she buys five dollars worth of crap.  But, hey, it’s her money, and she’s free to spend it as she chooses, within reason.  As a result, my daughter has a collection of ninety nine cent lip balms, mini nail polishes, and gumball machine trinkets that any kindergarten girl would be envious of.  All bought and paid for.

We’re even starting to talk about saving her allowance from week to week for some larger purchases, or possibly putting some percentage of her weekly take into her savings account.  

What have I learned from all this?  The major take home lesson here is that the key to behavior modification is finding out what the payoff is. Find out why your child is doing something and you’re halfway to finding a solution.  When I knew that Joey wanted certain things and didn’t trust me, rightly, to buy them for her, I clearly saw our answer. And it worked. 

She knew stealing was wrong, in theory. But at five, her impulse control can still use some work.  She knew that I was going to find out. She knew that I was going to be mad, and she couldn’t help herself, anyway.  Now, she sees something she wants and buys it. Or puts it on her mental list of stuff to get next time she gets paid.

Ken April 29, 2011 at 08:13 PM
That is a great idea. Unfortuntaely my kids are all grown now but I feel this is extremely sound advice.
Anna April 30, 2011 at 06:03 PM
Love it. Do you have an iPhone or ipad? My sons class does this and I have been developing a marble jar app. I'm seeking beta testers if you are interested. Http:/marblejar.winwinapps.com. Anna
Sharon-anne Osenenko May 02, 2011 at 04:58 PM
Anna, thanks for the offer. I actually have a Droid phone. I have a Mac computer, but need my google mobile! LOL
Bill at FamZoo May 03, 2011 at 12:11 AM
Sharon-anne, we have a Web app that helps parents teach kids good personal finance skills by setting up a Virtual Family Bank to track allowance, savings goals, etc. Accessible from my Droid too ;-)

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