Smart Love


Should I accuse my son of stealing?

By Martha Heineman Pieper, PhD. and William J. Pieper, M.D.

Here's your chance to get some answers to your pressing parenting questions. If you're trying to figure out how to handle some aspect of your child's behavior, send your question to Chicago Parent Q&A, 141 S. Oak Park Ave., Oak Park, IL 60302; or e--mail it to Answers to past questions from readers are available at Click on "Archives," then "Smart Love."

Q: My 7--year--old came home from school with a GameBoy he said he "found" lying on the ground. I am suspicious of his story, but he swore it was really true.

I don't know whether to accept his story or to check with the school. If I believe him but he stole the GameBoy, I feel like I will be encouraging him to steal again. If I challenge him by calling the school, I'm afraid he won't feel trustworthy. What do you advise? And if I do call the school and find that he stole it, what should I do then? B.F., Aurora

A:You don't have to accuse your son of lying to check with the school. Tell him that before you can let him keep the GameBoy you need to call the school to make sure no one lost it. If no one reported it missing, there is no reason not to let him keep it. However, if someone did report the GameBoy missing, you should go with your son to school to make sure it is returned. If you then discover the GameBoy was not dropped but was taken from a locker, you will need to talk with your son.

In your discussion, keep in mind that nearly all children take something that doesn't belong to them at some point—only a tiny fraction grow up to steal as adults.

The object is not to make your son feel like a criminal. That would only drive him to cover his tracks better in the future. The next time he may not tell you he has "found" something of value. Rather, show your son he can get things he wants in ways that do not hurt others. For example, you might tell him that if he wants a GameBoy, he can save his allowance and you will add the money necessary to buy it on his next birthday or on the next big holiday.

Most important, emphasize you are proud of your son for telling you that he had the GameBoy and making it possible for you to help him to do the right thing and return it. Suggest that the next time he feels he really wants something other children have, he should talk to you and you will help him make a plan.

Can too much love rattle nerves of newborn baby? Q:I have a 6--week--old baby boy and a large extended family that lives nearby. I am the first of the "cousins" to have a child and so everyone comes by often to visit and admire my son. Everyone wants to hold him and I have been letting them. But I notice that after a lot of different people have held my son he has trouble getting to sleep and cries a lot. Do you think there really could be a connection between all the visitors and his unhappiness later or am I just making imaginary connections? My mother says my son is too young to notice or mind who is holding him. W.R., Chicago

A:Your son is lucky to have a mother who is so attentive to his needs. Yes, your intuition is correct. Even at such a young age your son does know you and he can be upset by being held by so many strangers. There is convincing research showing that newborns can recognize their mother's voice, smell and touch and are calmed by her presence. It stands to reason, then, that when he is being held by strangers, a baby would notice and react to the absence of his mother. And if every time a baby gets used to the smell, touch and voice of one new person he is handed to another new person, it is easy to see that the baby's nerves could become quite jangled.

For now, let your family admire your son while he is held by you or your husband. After a few days, if it seems as though he is calm and sleeping better, you could try letting one new person a day hold him for a brief period.

Spanking stops behavior, but can it hurt the child? Q:My wife is convinced there is nothing wrong with giving our 4--year--old a swat on the bottom when he persists in doing something he has been told not to do. She would never hit him with a belt or hit him in the face, but she is convinced that a slap on the bottom is the only response that works.

For example, yesterday he wanted a cookie. My wife said he couldn't have it before dinner. He ignored her and climbed on the counter and started trying to reach the cookie jar in the cabinet. She told him to stop or she would spank him. He didn't stop, so she slapped him on the bottom. He started to cry but he did stop trying to reach the cookies.

Spanking does seem to work, but I worry about the long--term effects on my son. T.K., Elgin

A:You are right to worry. Hitting people who don't do what we want is the worst lesson we can teach our children. Parents can get so caught up in controlling behavior in the short term that they don't think about the long--term consequences of their methods. Spanking teaches children that hurting others is an acceptable solution to differences of opinion. For this reason, swats on the bottom are never harmless or inconsequential.

We recommend loving regulation to manage your son. Loving regulation separates the punitive component from the regulatory component of managing children's behavior. For example, if your son is attracted to cookies before dinner, you can probably avoid the problem altogether by having a locked cabinet or putting them in a place he won't think to look. Preventing conflict is a crucial strategy in parenting young children.

If the cookies are within reach and he is determined to have one, rather than expecting him to control his desires, move the cookies where he can't reach them, pick him up and hug him when he cries, and offer him a healthy snack to tide him over. You will have achieved your goal of preventing him from spoiling his appetite with sweets, while at the same time showing him you can disagree with his behavior and still love and care for him. Unlike spanking, loving regulation provides children with a model of peaceful yet effective ways to solve relationship differences.


Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and William J. Pieper, M.D., are authors of Addicted to Unhappiness: Free Yourself from Moods and Behaviors that Undermine Relationships, Work and the Life You Want (McGraw--Hill, 2002), about helping parents and other adults improve their own live. They also wrote the best selling parenting book, Smart Love (Harvard Common Press, 2001). The Piepers have spent more than three decades practicing psychotherapy with infants, children, adolescents and adults; counseling parents, and supervising other mental health professionals. The parents of five children, the Piepers live in Chicago.

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