I have a six‑year-old son who is very bright and extroverted…. He always asks me for money, but I hardly ever give him any (only when I can). He recently came home from school eating some ice cream, and I knew I hadn’t given him any money to buy it…. I checked his pockets and, to my great surprise, he had some money in them….
After telling me several lies, he confessed that he had taken the money from a little can where I keep some cash. This made me very sad. I didn’t spank him because I promised him that if he told me the truth, I wouldn’t spank him….
He also confessed that this was the second time he had taken money from me that way…. This worries me a lot. What do you advise me to do?
The most important part of the information you gave us is your son’s age, for our answer to your problem would be very different if your son were older. But at six years of age, children (even very bright ones) do not have the intellectual capacity to truly understand moral issues such as lying and stealing. Experts in child development will tell you that a six year old cannot completely distinguish reality from fantasy.
Parents must not expect their children less than seven years of age to understand logic. This is important because logic is required in order to reason, and reason is required in order to comprehend property rights. Therefore, you are being unrealistic when you expect your son to understand why taking something from you is wrong. So even though you should teach him that it is wrong, you should not expect him to understand why it is wrong.
“Why?” is a completely useless question that parents often expect their children to answer. Children younger than seven do not have any ability to explain why they did something in particular. A few children ages seven to twelve may sometimes be able to articulate why they did something, but they might or might not have analyzed their thinking process accurately. Even many adolescents have a difficult time explaining why they chose to do what they did.
Children need to be taught to distinguish between right and wrong. And they need to be given appropriate punishment when they disobey. Parents should even give age‑appropriate reasons for the rules, such as: “It hurts when you hit someone. You will be punished if you hit anyone.” “This money belongs to Mommy. You will be punished if you take it.” “Touching fire will hurt you. You will be punished if you touch the stove.” However, following up with “Why do you want to hurt Mommy?”, or “You are a bad boy for taking my money” is useless and destructive. It blames the child for wrong motivations, when the child cannot yet reason adequately enough to have wrong motivations. It gives the child the idea that he himself is bad, instead of that his actions are bad.
The Bible teaches that every human being is born with a sinful nature.1 A child will make choices that are morally wrong, such as lying and stealing, from an early age; but God does not hold him accountable for his sin until he is old enough to understand and reason. In the meantime, God gives the child parents who are supposed to teach him the difference between right and wrong, and discipline him as a way of helping him choose to do what is right and what will not harm him.
Your son is a bright child who figured out a way to get what he wanted. Yes, it was morally wrong for him to take your money, but he can’t really understand that. Taking your money does not indicate that he will lack moral values when he is older. What it does indicate is that you will have to stay one step ahead of him and make sure that he always receives appropriate and consistent discipline for his actions.
Give your son a hug from us,
Linda and Charles
1 Ps 51:5