Stealing and lying are not uncommon occurrences for kids who were adopted, especially for kids adopted out of orphanages. Oh, how shocked and upset I was the first time I “caught” my son with stolen property! Actually, I should have had an inkling I would deal with stealing (and the lying that follows) at some point. After all, my daughter was caught stealing a pack of gum by our missionary friend when we were shopping together during our adoption. I’m not exactly sure why I was shocked when it happened here at home with my son, too. I knew it was quite common for orphans (and former orphans) to steal and lie. They had to be resourceful. It was often a matter of life and death. I guess I wasn’t prepared. Our kids were home more than three years and I was gobsmacked. I thought we were not going to have any of “those” problems. I hadn’t caught either of them blatantly stealing something since that one day in the market during their adoption. Then, all of a sudden, we were dealing with the theft of not just one expensive electronic device, but several. On top of that, our son even figured out how to steal bandwidth from the neighbor by hacking into their (poorly) secured wireless internet connection.
Strangely -- and I’m not saying this happened easily, nor quickly -- I began to look at the positive in all this.
HUH? What’s positive about a kid stealing and then lying his BRAINS out after the fact? Even telling “crazy lies” about the most obvious of things?
Okay, I hear you. Remember, I was right there! But take a breath and think about it. What is GOOD about a kid that knows how to steal and how to make up stories? They certainly are resourceful! They certainly know how to assess a situation and figure out where all the players are located at any given time and in any given scenario. They absolutely know where the things they want to steal, as well as the things they have already stolen, are located. No lost or misplaced items on that account! They also know how to distract other people and how to manipulate them to their advantage. When I thought about the skill involved in knowing how to do all these things, I started to think about how we could apply those skills to things our son could use as assets. I don’t have a lot of time left with him. He’s getting older. He’s going to need a job in the not-too-distant future.
A kid that is aware of his surroundings is a good person to have around when you’re a middle-aged mom who often forgets where she put her keys or her cell phone. A kid that always knows where the important things are located can find just about anything that’s “hidden” or “lost.” A kid who knows how to play up a situation, or work things to an advantage, can develop the skills necessary to become a used car salesman or even a politician! (Don’t laugh. The world would be a vastly different place without politics and cars.)
The thing I’ve learned about my PTSD/RADish IA kids is they just don’t learn from words. Lectures about what’s right and wrong don’t change their behavior. Tears shed by them after being caught are much more about shame (a HUGE issue for most IA kids) and about, “dang, I got caught!” feelings, than they are about remorse. And don’t even tell me “‘home-grown’ kids sometimes steal, too.” (I know. I did. I stole a little toy from a store near my house when I was a kid. My mom made me take it back and pay for it. I remember it like it was yesterday.) It’s not the same. The motivation is different. The aftermath is for sure different.
All internationally –adopted kids from orphanages know property is a collective commodity. There are no personal possessions in an orphanage. Everything belongs to everybody. “Taking” something doesn’t mean the same thing as “stealing” it to our kids. Additionally, because our kids had no personal property, it is hard for them to fully grasp – even years home – the concept of ownership. Entitlement is the concept they know, and the one that builds to epic proportions once they’re home in America and have “stuff.” Just going into Wal-mart or Target can be a completly overwhelming experience. Put yourself in their shoes. What is it like to go from nothing to virtually EVERYTHING? Imagine getting by on a $30,000/year income and winning a power ball lottery. Why are people in that situation, broke and worse off than they ever were within just a few years?
When your internationally-adopted child steals, try to stay calm. (Don’t go ballistic like I did.) They are going to be stressed. You are going to be stressed. It won’t matter if it’s a pack of gum or an iPod Touch (or two iPod Touches, computer components, and the neighbor’s internet connection). It’s about their response to stress. Lectures aren’t going to change the behavior. They’re just going to become even more “resourceful” the next time. (The chance that there will be a next time is higher than the chance this is a one-time thing.) Shame sure isn’t going to change the behavior. The lies will just get more elaborate.
Another thing to think about is when our kids steal, they are self-soothing. They are taking control to meet whatever need it is they think they have, whether that need is to be the electronic king at the middle school, or a baby who needs the oral stimulation of sucking (sweet mother’s milk). (This is a topic for another post, but my kids often ask for a piece of sucking candy or gum when they are stressed. The sweetness and the sucking sensation are soothing to them. They are getting something they got far too little of as babies.)
So, what do we do? Ever work with 2-year-olds? You do things over and over and over again.
Our kids need matter-of-fact, natural consequences – over and over and over again. Remember the years of abuse and neglect have wired their brains so differently than those of us raised in relatively happy homes. If your child steals a pack of gum, think “Double-Mint.” In other words, double it up! Have the child pay back double for what they’ve taken. FACE the manager at the store. Make your child FACE the manager at the store. Stand BEHIND your child while they do it. Have them pay for the item. Follow through on whatever consequences the manager sees fit to impose. (Most managers will not/cannot accept double payment, but the double can be given to a charity that matters to the store – most all of them do something in their communities.) This isn’t about humiliation or degrading our children. It’s about restitution and restoration. If your child doesn’t have money of their own because they’re too little, then show them how you are using YOUR money to pay for it – that it takes a young person, working minimum wage, to work X amount of time to earn that amount of TAKE HOME (after tax) money, and that they will need to work to replace that money for your family. Give them a job to do at home they wouldn’t normally have to do, and let them do it for whatever amount of time is needed to earn that “take home” pay.
The lying that accompanies stealing is also a reflex and a means to the end of protecting oneself (however irrational or “crazy”). In the orphanage, if someone got into trouble, the goal was to find the kid who could be in even more trouble. Pointing fingers and telling stories was just what you did to get by. It’s a way of life – even a culture – and that way of life is hard to turn around, even if your kid has been home several years. When I moved from the Northeast to the Midwest, it was hard! I had to change some of the things I did or said regularly -- things that were a way of life in the Mid-Atlantic, but were seen as rude and completely unacceptable in the middle of the country. It’s really no different for my kids when it comes to dealing with what is automatic for them – to lie. This topic deserves its own post – maybe even several posts. For now, let’s just say when it accompanies stealing, you really need to let the lies go – at least while you’re dealing with the muck of the theft. “Making” a child tell the truth will usually just get you an even crazier lie. Be silent. If you must say anything, say, “I know you’re not telling me something. I can wait for you to tell me the rest of what really happened.” Then wait. Don’t badger.
There’s no simple way to wrap all this up. Stealing and lying are hard things for a good parent. I’ll admit quite readily that being lied to is one of my own top triggers! Still, when you talk with your child after the heat of the moment, and you want your questions answered, try using “what” questions. (Don’t use “why.” They don’t know WHY.) Ask, “What did you want?” “What were you thinking before you got the toy?” “What do you think we should do now?” There are many places on the internet to read much more on this topic. I recommend the book, Parenting Your Internationally Adopted Child, which you can get from Amazon or read online at Google Books here. Feel free to add links in the comment section below this post!