Normal Thievery—Good Parenting


Dear Dr. Debbie,

My otherwise intelligent seven-year-old made a big mistake. She went grocery shopping with me and watched as I put $40 cash in my wallet at the checkout. This was to save money over using my credit card at the gas station the next day. Imagine my confusion at finding only one $20 bill in my purse. There’s no one at home but the two of us. So how do I confront the (100% likely) guilty party? I didn’t want to make a scene at the gas station; and was kind of shocked to think I may be the Mother of a Criminal.

Dear M.C.,

Yes, she’s guilty, but this is a normal misbehavior for a seven-year-old. 

Found Money

A typically developing child understands the purchase power of cash by age seven. At this age “finders keepers, losers weepers” also holds concrete meaning. If she were to find a dime on the sidewalk, she’d pocket it. And see no reason to tell you about it. Same thing with a quarter under the couch cushion. Likewise your unguarded purse promises the means to obtaining some treasure or treasures that otherwise might elude her. We’ll get back to this.

The best way to confront a child about her wrongdoing is to use I-Statements and the Truth. Have a Consequence in mind before starting this conversation. Be prepared her to have a desperate defense – but stick to a consequence regardless. Then find ways to remind her how Trustworthy she can be.

I-Statements and Truth

Use statements from your point of view about the “crime” to minimize your daughter’s attempts to deny or defend her actions. You say, “I was missing $20 from my purse today.” She can’t claim that the money isn’t missing. The truth is a plain fact. Your feelings can also be expressed in an “I-Statement” as in, “I was confused since I got the cash so I could pay for gas.” And, “I was annoyed that I had to use the credit card which costs more.”  This approach focuses on you, not her.

Logical Consequences

If you keep this conversation low-key, your daughter might ‘fess up and return the stolen money. And even apologize for causing your distress. If she’s already spent the money, she could offer to pay back her debt to you. This could be by doing something – beyond her regular chores – that would save you money or help you to earn money. If she bought something that’s returnable, she needs to return it. If she doesn’t follow along with your assumption of her guilt, then the consequence is that there is $20 less in the family budget for the “extras” she would normally enjoy over the next few days. Logically this could include driving her places, the use of electricity for movies and games, take-out food, etc. Consequences relate directly to the misbehavior. In this case, the logical consequence is that the family’s buying power is reduced by the amount of money still missing. Remember that a logical consequence is over and done with in short order. Three or four days is plenty long enough for a seven-year-old.


Give her plenty of opportunities to prove to herself that she is the kind of person who is trustworthy. When you use a Logical Consequence, as opposed to a punishment, your daughter is spared from the lingering feeling that she is an awful person, or that you are an awful person. Neither of these emotions will lead to good behavior. Rather, catch an opportunity to commend her for resisting the temptation of taking something that doesn’t belong to her. Good parenting includes guiding a child to do the right thing when the right thing isn’t easy or obvious. Then when she does it on her own, she’ll be proud to tell you about it, knowing this confirms what you already believe.


Child-proofing is a continuous job. Keep your daughter from further financial temptations by keeping cash inaccessible. When she was younger, you kept her out of trouble by making the kitchen knives and laundry detergent inaccessible. There are normal temptations at every age. When she’s eight, if you haven’t already, you need to make matches and lighters inaccessible!  

Another side to preventing her from taking money that isn’t hers is to help her to earn and manage her own money. Help her understand the difference between needs and wants, by your modelling and by including her in (minor) financial decision making for the two of you. For example sledding in the local park vs. an afternoon at a bowling alley saves money for a meal at a restaurant. 

This is the perfect age for concrete lessons about spending money intelligently.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist  and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Register for her next parenting workshop on Zoom on Tuesday, February 9 at 1:30 p.m.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.