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Curbing Sticky Fingers

You're shopping with your preschooler when he spots a coveted action figure. He grabs it greedily and stuffs it in his pocket, knowing you might get mad, but not quite understanding why. Does he lack morals? Not really.

"Most preschoolers haven't fully grasped the concept of ‘this is mine, that's yours,'" says Leah Klungness, Ph.D., a psychologist in Locust Valley, New York. From a child's perspective, ownership rules are confusing and inconsistent. For instance, if he's allowed to take home the crayons supplied at a restaurant, he may not understand why he can't hang on to the very same type of crayons that he finds at his friend's house. And if he sees his favorite kind of candy bar at the checkout counter of the grocery store, why can't he have one now if Mom has let him have the same candy in the past?

"A preschooler gradually begins to develop a conscience, morals, and a sense of guilt, but these attributes usually don't solidify until the early grade-school years," says Frances Stott, dean of academic programs for the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development, in Chicago. In the meantime, there are several things you can do to keep sticky fingers clean.

Put It Simply

Explain ownership in simple terms when the opportunity arises. You might say, "That candy belongs to the store. You have to give the cashier money if you want to take it." Or, "That Power Ranger belongs to John. You can play with it at his house, but you must leave it with him when you go."

Return the Goods

If despite your explanations John's toy still ends up in your child's backpack, don't scold or punish him. Approach him matter-of-factly and say, "This toy isn't yours and we must return it at once. If we don't, John is going to be very sad." Or, "We must take this chocolate bar back to the supermarket."

The goal isn't to instill shame in your child, but to teach him that some things aren't always available to him. Have him accompany you when you return the purloined item and tell the cashier, "I would like to return this candy." "Meanwhile, don't reward the child's behavior by letting him play with the toy or buying him the chocolate bar," advises Klungness.

Model Morality

Children learn by example, so be on your own best behavior. Don't nab a butterscotch from the bulk-candy stand at the grocery store, for example, or sneak two newspapers from the dispenser.

Stick to the Moral

Keep the emphasis of your talks about stealing on doing the right thing. "Explain ownership rules to your preschooler, but wait until he's school-age before you talk to him about the consequences," says Klungness. Stress the higher moral lesson: It's wrong to take what isn't yours.