Same as “lying’, the term “stealing” is also a word that can properly be applied only to those who are old enough to have a fully developed conscience and a clear sense of ownership. These are seldom seemed in child younger than six years of age.
Your two year old starts from the premise that everything in the world is potentially hers; when she takes some desirable toy from another child; she has no difficulty seeing herself as the rightful owner. At three, she still does not understand the limits of ownership; she retains the notion that she can take things any time she wants. It will be another year before she has developed sufficient to grasp the idea of ownership, and she will be six before she is really able to see that taking things without permission is unacceptable.
You must be prepared to intervene calmly and firmly when your youngster takes things that is not hers, while teaching other ways of dealing with her desires. Start demonstrating the basic rules of ownership by using words like mine and yours. Frequently remind her that she must not take things that are not hers. When your youngster takes something improperly, accompany her to the store or to the friend’s house and have her return the item herself.
If problem continues, you should show her the serious consequences by withdrawing a privilege she holds dear. Remember not to label the infractions with heavy words such as “steal”. Such terms are not only accurate descriptions of what happened, but they are liable to haunt her later when she realizes how seriously society regards such behavior. If your child denies having taken something, but you are suspicious, do not hesitate to search her or her room. If you are convinced that she has taken something, comfort her directly.
Avoid putting too strong an emphasis on what your child must not do. Put just as much energy into educating her right ways to get what she wants. Talk to her about how you buy things at the grocery store and borrow books from the library, and go out of your way to ask your youngster for permission to use her special cup. She will get the idea.