Pocketing treats is common among the preschool set, says Becky Bailey, Ph.D., author of Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline, but it isn't a sign of a future felon. "At this age, kids can't separate fantasy from reality," she explains. "They think, 'I want it, therefore it's mine.'"
In fact, it's not until they hit age 7 or so that kids fully make the distinction between what belongs to them and what belongs to others. But you can still correct the behavior. As soon as you notice your child has taken something, you should matter-of-factly state what you see. "Say, 'You wanted the toy, so you took it for yourself' and wait for him to agree," Bailey suggests. Then, without getting upset, tell him that the ball or gum belongs to the store, so you must return it.
Instead of trying to make your child admit he's done something wrong, focus on the action you have to take. Go to the store together and give him the words to say: "I took the ball and I'm bringing it back. I'm sorry."
To keep your preschooler from pilfering the racks next week, explain that you take home only what first goes into the cart -- and he must ask you before he drops anything in there. But don't be surprised if there's a repeat performance. Says Bailey, "It takes years of hearing 'You must ask if you can have something before you take it' before kids really understand."