WASHINGTON — It is the most pervasive form of juvenile delinquency. And yet stealing by children is seldom acknowledged by schools, by communities, by psychological literature, even by parents as an issue that sweeps all social classes and may tie in directly to later antisocial behavior.
"Most children," psychologist Ronald J. Prinz told a symposium of the American Psychological Assn. here late last week, "report that at some point they have stolen."
But because they tend to attach excessive "emotional overload" to the notion of a child who has stolen, adults are often likely to deny the behavior, fellow panelist Leah Klungness said. "They think, 'My child has stolen a pack of gum--therefore he's going to Sing-Sing.' "
Besides, said Klungness, a psychologist with the South Huntington Union Free School in Huntington Station, N.Y., "Adults are typically hesitant to label it 'stealing.' They all remember that they did it once."
Early on the first day of this 94th annual convention of the world's largest organization of psychologists, the subject of preadolescent stealing drew an enthusiastic, standing-room audience. One reason for the high degree of interest, panel chair Susan G. Forman of the University of South Carolina speculated, was that so little has been written or publicized on what Forman termed a "very serious problem."
Agreed panelist Gloria Miller, from the same team of psychologists at the University of South Carolina, "I feel that this issue and this behavior have been significantly overlooked."
In large part because of the relative dearth of research, no actual data exists on the numbers of child stealers. There are "some suggestions," Klungness said, that preadolescent boys steal more than preadolescent girls. "But again," Klungness cautioned, "we don't know for sure."
What researchers do know, Klungness went on, is that "one of the most critical issues is the accurate labeling of the child's stealing behavior."
Stressing that "stealing" in this context is covert, and refers only to non-confrontational behavior--that is, not mugging or other overtly aggressive acts that involve confrontation with the victim--Klungness called "deficient labeling" potentially the "largest factor contributing to a recurrence of the behavior."
'Atmosphere of Tolerance'
When "significant adults" fail to identify a child's stealing, Klungness said, "it contributes to an atmosphere of tolerance." Those adults, usually parents, may also foster an air of acceptability by accepting such "alternative labeling" as "I found it," or "Someone let me borrow it."
One explanation for mislabeling of juvenile stealing is that "a lot of times adults are fearful of possible legal repercussions--they are scared of the long-term consequences," Miller said. Some research, she added, indicates that adults may in effect devalue the stealing behavior by placing other issues ahead of it. "They will say, 'Yes, he is stealing, but really, he's failing math,' " Miller said.
Or, Klungness said, "very often there is a kind of denial pattern within the adult environment." For example, adults may not "count" suspected stealing or stealing of small amounts of money or inexpensive objects. Such leniency, she said, "means a greater likelihood that stealing will occur--or recur."
In general, however, stealing by children does tend to reflect "a general lack of adult disciplinary skills," Klungness said, as well as a "low level of involvement with the child." Often within the home of the child stealer, she said, there is "inappropriate supervision." Said Miller: "Children who have a lot of unmonitored time tend to get into trouble. We know that."
The covert nature of stealing adds a major obstacle to treatment, Miller said, "because you have to be aware when the target behavior is occurring." This is not necessarily easy. "Stealing is not very readily observable," Miller said. "It's hard to detect. It's very rare that you catch someone in the act of stealing."
Stealing is also "highly reinforced" behavior, she said, in that "right away you get the goodies." Frequently, Miller said, "children who steal will share what they steal with their peers. It provides instant reinforcement."
"You take the candy," Klungness said, "you get the goodie."
Indeed, Klungness said, "very, very few incidences of stealing by children are related to genuine physical need."
Stealing, in the view of Prinz, "is part of a constellation of behavior problems." Children who steal, he said, are likely also to exhibit problems of conduct such as disobedience, non-compliance or excessive aggressiveness. In a treatment program for aggressive boys (not necessarily stealers) ages 4 to 9, Prinz said, "already, in our 60 families, 40-50% of our parents are reporting occurrences of stealing."