Who's Minding the Store?
For some, it's a game something for the group to do. They organize their moves ahead of time, assigning someone to be a lookout and others to be runners. The point is to walk out with as much loot as possible.
Others shoplift for the thrill it's exciting to get away with it. Or they do it on a dare. They may be competing with a kid who brags about his "talent" for walking away with high ticket items and not getting caught. Or they're at the mall and think: "I want that ring. Why shouldn't I have it?"
Then they pocket the ring impulsively. What many of these kids have in common is the notion that shoplifting is harmless. "They think taking a few things from a big store like Macy's, where the clothes or jewelry probably won't even be missed, doesn't really hurt anyone," says Lawrence Shampain, MD, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. "They don't call it stealing and they don't perceive it to be a crime."
Shoplifting is certainly considered stealing whether it's a dare, a game or just something a young person does without really thinking. Stores spend thousands of dollars on security devices and personnel to prevent shoppers from walking out with unpaid items.
Unfortunately, many parents are caught way off guard when the police call comes in that their 13-year-old has just been apprehended for a shoplifting spree, says Shampain, who specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry. They don't understand how this could have happened.
Shampain says there are kids who start stealing as young as three taking things from the teacher's desk or other kids' houses. He says this usually comes from the feeling: "I want this so I'll take it. I won't worry about how the other person feels."
Teen shoplifting often comes from a similar feeling, he explains. They think: "I can do what I want I won't get caught." But whether the shoplifter is 10, 18 or 25, most do get caught.
Shampain advises parents to establish a way for their children to earn money very early on. This might be for chores as simple as picking up toys from the floor or making a bed, or not fighting with a sibling. "Parents should establish a structured way for rewarding kids. It's good for their self-esteem," he states. He also advises parents to let children spend their earnings in any way they choose no strings attached.
For older children, he says a regular weekly allowance in return for doing specific chores around the house is very important. Teens should also be encouraged to earn spending money by doing neighborhood jobs such as babysitting, snow shoveling and dog walking. "It's a good lesson for kids to learn that if they want something, they need to earn the money to buy it," Shampain states.
He also recommends that despite arguments from teens, parents should always know where their kids are and who they are spending time with: "If your child goes to the mall with a bunch of friends who happen to be shoplifting, he could find himself in a very difficult situation even if he hasn't taken anything.
"We tell our children not to blame their actions on other kids," he says, "but most young people Ð no matter how strong-minded Ð are sometimes influenced by their friends."
Winter 1998 Table of Contents