Kids & Shoplifting: What It Means and What Parents Can Do About It

By Carol E. Vaughn

As Britney, 14, saunters past the plentiful aisles of makeup at a suburban department store, the temptation of the newest shade of glimmering gold eye shadow proves to be too much.

The practiced teen has stolen before – two dozen times, to be precise. A flick of the wrist and into her purse the compact goes. Joining her mother, Britney proceeds through the checkout line and out the door. But just minutes later, the teen and her mother are discreetly escorted to the store security office.

An hour later, Britney’s mother has signed an agreement to avoid prosecution in exchange for a hefty civil fine as the teen turns over the cosmetic. She has also been given the option of enrolling her daughter in a shoplifting education program.

Signs Your Child May Be Shoplifting
• Secretive about extra income

• Unexplained absences

• Mysterious appearance of new items (such as clothing, makeup, jewelry, electronics, CDs, etc.)

• Expensive gifts to friends

Getting the Goods

Young movie star Winona Ryder was  convicted of shoplifting. But most shoplifters are not high-profile athletes or celebrities. There are about 23 million shoplifters in our nation today – about one in 11 people, according to Shoplifters Alternative, a national nonprofit research and rehabilitation program. Although only one-quarter of shoplifters are teen-agers, 55 percent of adult shoplifters say that they began to steal when they were younger, according to Shoplifters Alternative.

In 2001, shoplifting cost American retailers about $10 billion, according to the National Retail Security Survey reported by researchers at the University of Florida. The result for consumers is higher prices, as retailers try to recover and plan for such losses. Add a weak economy to the mix, and experts expect shoplifting to intensify.

While advertising blitzes and media hype can’t excuse the problem of teen shoplifting, they can help us explain it, says youth counselor Mike Higgins. “The culture is influencing these minds in a way that didn’t happen in previous generations,” says the social worker who counsels both children and parents in one of the nation’s most innovative programs for early intervention with teen offenders.  

Teach That Stealing Is Wrong

Despite the materialistic nature of our society, children can and should be taught at an early age that stealing is wrong, says Chuck Sennewald, author of Shoplifters vs. Retailers, The Rights of Both. A former career lawman, retail security expert and now one of the nation’s foremost authorities on shoplifting, Sennewald stresses that parents must continually model standards of conduct while discussing notions of right versus wrong with their children.

Take the scenario of the young child being chided for taking candy from the neighborhood grocery store. The lesson that it’s wrong to steal under any circumstances should be reinforced even at that early age, according to Sennewald. “For some, shoplifting may be a rite of passage, but it’s not harmless,” he says. “Indeed, it can be somewhat addictive, and therein lies the problem.”

Child-development specialists generally agree that children formulate a sense of “right and wrong” at about age 6, depending on variables that include the child’s maturity and influences. A parent’s response to stealing needs to be tailored to the child’s developmental stage:

• When speaking to a child around age 4, parents shouldn’t use the word “steal” in explaining that taking a candy bar was wrong, says Dina Cyphers, director of Theft Talk, a nonprofit organization specializing in counseling theft offenders. “We need to teach children not to ‘take something that is not theirs,’” she says, rather than throwing out a word they have no concept of.

• By 6 or 7 years of age, the child could be made to face the store manager. Returning the item and apologizing are appropriate, Cyphers says. She urges parents to call the manager in advance to make sure he doesn’t say something like, “That’s OK.” “I hope you’ve learned your lesson,” is much more effective, she says.

• By age 10, parents should add the component of making the child invest time in paying back the victim. A time-limited, helpful task, such as sweeping the parking lot for an hour is appropriate. Cyphers stresses that parents should not reward the child afterward with payment or a treat.

With teen shoplifters, parents are advised to examine the child’s motivation. Is he succumbing to peer pressure or trying to cope with familial or environmental pressures?

A frequent rationalization for shoplifting is the feeling that corporations cannot possibly notice or care about a relatively minor loss. Britney insists that she would never have stolen from an individual. Theft from a company, she felt, was impersonal.

“It wasn’t an actual person I knew,” she says. “And I didn’t feel bad.”

Psychologist James Hutchison has spent many years counseling middle-class youth who have been caught shoplifting. Hutchison believes that many teen shoplifters are in denial about the damage they do to businesses. “’Big companies can afford it,’ is the typical reply,” he says.

“Sometimes I hear a well-developed rationalization about the evils of capitalism, about how big stores use deceptive advertising and try to maximize their profits at the consumers’ expense,” Hutchison explains. “So teen-agers [believe they] have a right to shoplift and look out for themselves.”

He cautions parents not to take shoplifting lightly. “It’s not ‘a phase,’ a ‘mistake’ or ‘something we all did one time or another,’” Hutchison says. Facing the consequences and learning a good, life lesson are in order, he adds.

Yet shoplifting can be a symptom of something troubling the teen.

Why Kids Steal

The motives behind teen shoplifting vary, but “keeping up with the Joneses” is a prime reason given by young offenders. Britney says she stole because she simply wanted things that she could not pay for and that her mother wouldn’t buy.

Rhonda, now an adult, remembers getting caught the first time as she stole a bathing suit when she turned 17. Lousy luck, she says, but an effective lesson, in retrospect. Her father had forbidden her to complete scuba-diving lessons with a group of young men and made her throw away her bikini. So the teen stole as an act of rebellion.

Today, the misdemeanor charges still remain on her record. Although decades have past, she has kept the incident a secret from all but a select few friends, out of shame. Years later, therapy has helped her see how she was reacting to a family situation.

Besides using theft as a means to acquire material goods or garner attention, teens sometimes shoplift for the excitement of the dare – the challenge – that puts them on a pedestal with their peers.

In her award-winning film Thirteen, director Catherine Hardwicke examines these and other factors through the story of her boyfriend’s adolescent daughter, Nikki Reed. Winning rave reviews at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, the film, co-written by the then 13-year-old Nikki, is about a teen who experiences growing pains and gives into peer pressure to steal. The film is scheduled to be released in August by Fox Searchlight.

“Our teenage girl wanted nice clothes, belly rings and so on,” says Hardwicke. Nikki also wanted to fit in with rebellious “bad” girls rather than be called a “loser” or “goody-goody,” the director says.

Hutchison and others warn parents of repeat offenders to consider the possibility of drug use. “Some drug users do shoplift to pay for their habit,” he notes.

The very public stories of celebrities like Winona Ryder can be used to teach teens a valuable lesson, Sennewald points out. Convicted of grand theft and vandalism, Ryder was sentenced to a three-year probation and ordered to pay a $10,000 fine, perform community service and undergo psychological and drug counseling for her crimes.

“It can show that it’s a sickness, and that even important people must pay a dear price when caught,” Sennewald says. “I think it has positive benefits if exploited by the parent.”

The Theft Talk organization contends that asking why a teen steals should be secondary to getting him or her to stop. Theft Talk’s curriculum stresses individual behaviors and making good choices.

“The one thing in common among people who steal is that they steal because they want something but don’t want to take their own time and money to get it,” Cyphers says. “It’s the want for instant gratification. Peer pressure, thrill, fun and getting back at parents are secondary rewards.”

Paying the Price

“Often, juveniles fail to understand the seriousness of shoplifting as a crime and are shocked when they are caught by security in stores,” says Dan Butler, spokesperson for the National Retail Federation. Even with in-store cameras and tagged products, many kids miscalculate technologies and are surprised that retailers use them to catch thieves and secure convictions in court, he says.

Police are called in half of all shoplifting cases, Butler says, and it is the department’s call as to what happens next. Also, punishment of first-, second- and third-time offenders varies by jurisdiction, with misdemeanor and felony theft charges applying. While some kids may actually be required to serve time in juvenile facilities, others receive probation. Another option is costly civil fines, ranging from $100 to $500 and implemented even after the items are recovered. The fines are meant to compensate retailers for shoplifting-related losses. Failure to agree to pay usually lands parents in civil court.

“Civil fines are becoming the weapon of choice for retailers, as authorized by state laws, and are referred to as ‘civil recovery/civil demand,’” Sennewald explains.

Today, Britney can look back over the year she spent paying restitution for shoplifting, measuring the hours she passed doing chores to fund the civil restitution of monthly payments she sent to the department store.

“I haven’t shoplifted since because I don’t want to take the risk of getting caught again and taken off to jail,” she admits. She believes that teens can benefit from performing community service jobs for their transgressions.

So do counselors like Mike Higgins and others who are involved in community-based prevention and early intervention programs for youth. These programs that use a restorative justice model – such as community service in churches, schools and non-profit agencies – are increasingly popular throughout the country and in the crowded juvenile justice system, Higgins explains. At the heart of their success is early intervention.

In some programs, kids and their parents also enroll in theft-awareness classes. They also write a letter of apology to the theft victim.

A little humiliation also goes a long way, says Britney, who was caught shoplifting as she left the store with her unsuspecting mother.

“It made me really feel bad that I had let down my mom, because she was with me,” she says. “I felt like I had shamed her, and I felt very low. I never want to feel that way again.”

Learn more:

Punishment for Shoplifting

Shoplifting: Resources for More Information

Carol E. Vaughn is a freelance writer and the mother of two girls.

From United Parenting Publications, June, 2003.