When it comes to personal property, boundaries between siblings can be hard to define. After all, in a family there is such a thing as communal property: what is mine is also yours. And sharing is a virtue all parents want to encourage in their children.

“Mom! Laurie stole my hairbrush!”

“I did not!”

“You did too! Who else would take it?”

“I just borrowed for a minute. Why are you so selfish?”

But no matter how close siblings are, respect of individuality (and hence, personal property) is important. Children must be allowed to set limitations that they are comfortable with — it’s part of their journey to selfhood.

So how are parents to handle situation of “stealing” between siblings? Consider the following tips:

Explain the Importance of Ownership

Many kids are simply unaware that siblings can feel proprietorial about their personal belonging. For instance, kids might wonder: “What’s the big deal about lending a CD anyway?” It’s important  for parents to explain that an object need not be valuable materially for it to be precious to a person. It may have a sentimental value to its owner, or the owner simply wants their possessions placed exactly where they left it. When kids understand how important property is to people, they can be more respectful of their sibling’s things.

Teach Skills in Being a Good Borrower

If a child really wants something from their sibling, the best thing they can do is ask for it! Teach your child good borrowing skills such as asking permission to borrow in a pleasant way, taking good care of borrowed property, not lending borrowed property without the owner’s permission and returning borrowed property promptly as promised. If a person has proven to be a good borrower, they’re easy to trust. Trustworthy borrowers get to borrow more often.

Clarify That a “No” is a “No.”

It is important for parents teach their children that taking property without permission is called stealing. Parents can convey the following information to their kids: “If you borrow something, and your sibling says “no,” you cannot just go and help yourself to it anyway. Perhaps the object just can’t be lent or given away and in any event, it’s the owner’s right to say no. The borrower simply has to accept the owner’s decision. If this is the case, then find other, more acceptable ways of getting what you want. Perhaps you can save money to buy what you need, or maybe you can borrow it from someone else. You may also just be creative and find ways to make do with what you don’t have. Stealing is a serious offense that violates people’s rights and it is simply not an option.”

Model Respect of Property

If you want to teach your children to respect their sibling’s property, you have to respect their property too. It’s not easy to think of young children as having property (since you bought them everything they have!) but many things are their personal belongings that might have personal value to them. So don’t just take (or worse, throw!) their things without permission, or re-arrange their belongings even if you are in the process of cleaning their rooms. Doing so may convey to kids that private property is not really important. Put questionable items in a pile and ask the kids about them, involving them in the sorting and discarding process.  When kids feel that respect of property is a family value, they are more likely to follow suit.

Use Discipline When Necessary

If a child repeatedly takes things without permission, use your normal process of discipline (i.e. the 2X-Rule, as explained in detail in Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe). When you decide to use this rule, you always start with Step One, even though you’ve already told your child many times that he must not take property without permission. Wait until the child takes something one more time and then apply Step One. It might sound like this, “You are not allowed to take someone’s property without their permission because everyone has the right to decide whether or not to share their private belongings. If you don’t have permission, do not touch what doesn’t belong to you.” Wait until a child takes something again, and then apply Step Two. Step Two involves saying the exact same thing you said at step one and adding a warning that future stealing will result in a punishment (name the exact punishment you have in mind, taking care to make it severe enough that it will motivate the child to refrain from stealing in the future). If the child ever steals again, apply the punishment.

Consider a Cry for Attention

Is stealing from siblings a recurring behavior that persists despite your interventions? Then perhaps it’s time to consider a cry for help. Your child can be stealing to get negative attention; he may be feeling insecure and has resorted to misbehaving to get help. Or he may be suffering from a condition called kleptomania – a compulsive desire to steal in order to relieve anxiety. The best help will come from a child psychologist or another mental health professional.

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