Dear Dr. Wes and Miranda: Our 16-year-old daughter recently “found” someone’s iPhone in the locker room. So she took it. The next day, we received a call from an upset parent from the other team after their GPS traced the phone to our house! We confronted our daughter, who eventually handed over the phone. However, the parents contacted school officials, and she was suspended for three days.
Her only explanation: “What ever happened to finders keepers, losers weepers? Things get taken from me all the time and no one gets in trouble. If I found $500 lying around on the ground, would I keep it? Yes. I wouldn’t rob anyone, but if I find something, it’s mine.” We say she was at a school function and she took another athlete’s phone, disgracing her school, her family and most importantly herself, and that stealing is a crime. We grounded her for 10 days, took her laptop and phone and required her to write a letter of apology to her coach and athletic director. She refuses to acknowledge wrongdoing. Is this normal?
Dr. Wes: Normal, yes. Acceptable, no. I’m continually frustrated with teen ethics these days surrounding cheating, lying and stealing. At one point teens only deemed acceptable to steal from Walmart on the contention that it was a giant multinational corporation that exploited workers and customers. Somehow that was seen as turnabout being fair play, when in fact it was simply stealing.
Now, kids seem to be equally willing to steal from friends, to cheat with each other’s boy- or girlfriends, or on tests, and to generally write off bad ethics with a passage from a mythical book of excuses. Your daughter’s $500 point is ridiculous because she could easily find the owner of the phone but could not trace money. Would she have run someone’s Visa card if she found it? Wait … I don’t even want to know.
Frankly, I’m more surprised at your parenting than I am her behavior. You’ve done a right fine job of sending a message to your daughter, and you should not worry about whether it was received by her 16-year-old ears. When she grows up, hits 25 and her brain finishes developing, she’ll look back with shame and guilt and see your parenting as awe-inspiring, just as I do now.
Tell her that she got off easy this time, and the next occasion she’s caught engaged in sociopathic behavior, you’re going to double all the punishments. And mention that if she gets caught shoplifting (which I’ll bet she will), you’ll be docking her financially for the legal expenses and doing nothing but providing her with due process. No getting her off easy, no talking to the store manager, no begging for mercy. That’s the mistake too many parents make, and all that does is reinforce bad behavior with a pat on the head.
Finally, don’t feel bad that your daughter has done this. It’s all too common. But I think I speak for all of us law-abiding citizens in thanking you for trying to raise a young person with integrity. Don’t worry, she’ll get there.
Miranda: The last time I recall “finders keepers, losers weepers” being in force was in kindergarten. You’re right, your daughter is in denial about the consequences of her actions. Even if the phone was “found,” it was not hers to keep. It was someone else’s to lose. IPhones don’t just appear out of thin air, and it was obvious that it belonged to another person. She knew that but decided to do it anyway.
Perhaps she does not understand the value of something like a $200 dollar phone. You could suggest the idea of a job and have her pay retroactively for her phone (once she gets it back after being grounded). Then she may value it and understand how unfair it would be if someone stole it. At $7.25 an hour, that may be a strong push in getting across the ideas you have been attempting to enforce.
I have no doubt she knows what she did was wrong, but if she admits that, then she has to also admit to the scandal her bad decision caused.
Make sure you reinforce the idea that this is no one’s fault but her own. If she continues to believe that it’s the other girl’s fault for leaving it there, or her parents’ fault for “tattling,” then she won’t truly understand the effect of her actions. I wouldn’t lift her grounding; her suspension, her disgrace, the ability to play for her team and any resulting punishments are all on her shoulders because of her choice.
Stealing is a bad habit to get into, and as Wes notes, can result in much more serious consequences than a three-day suspension. It could result in probation or even time in detention. And if Wes is correct that she’s been lifting merchandise, too, you might want to do a “random receipt check” when she goes shopping just to be safe. She won’t like the punishments now, but it is necessary to raise the cost on this behavior.
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