Teaching children to respect property starts at home.

How to Teach Children to Respect Other People's Things

by Chelsea Fitzgerald

An ear-splitting screech -- "Mine!" -- often accompanies pulling an object that belongs to someone else out of a toddler's hands. The ensuing battle of wills usually results in a bout of tears and fits. Because preschoolers and toddlers have a limited ability to understand the concept of respecting another person's property, they will often simply take what they want; little thought, if any, is given to the owner of the object. Respecting another person's property is a developmental milestone for this age group. Help your child grasp an often-frustrating concept by using patience and life lessons in your teaching.

Teaching the Basics of Respecting Property

Start teaching your toddler about her property and the property of others at home. At bedtime, say, “This is Molly’s room -- there is Molly’s stuffed bear, Molly’s little chair and all of Molly’s toys.” When she proudly squeezes the bear to her chest, ask her if you can also have a hug from the bear. Once she allows you to hug it, say, “Mommy is so proud of you. You shared, and the bear’s hug makes me feel good, too!” This teaches your child that while she does own the bear, sharing creates positive feelings. Look sad for a moment if she says, “No,” and say, "That’s alright. Maybe some other time you will feel like sharing your bear."

Role-play with your child in order to teach her about asking permission to touch someone else’s property. For instance, have a tea party and ask her in a prim and proper manner if you may have a bite of the pastry that is on her plate. She will likely mimic you and do the same when she desires a bite of your cookie or other tasty treat.

Instruct her to apologize to her older sibling or a friend if she borrows his property and accidentally or purposefully damages it. Encourage the person to tell her how he feels now that the item is broken. This teaches her empathy. It also makes her think about others' feelings when she feels temptation to take or damage something that doesn’t belong to her.

Hug your child in a loving manner when something of hers is borrowed or damaged without the person first asking permission. Encourage a child who is preschool age to talk about her feelings. If she is younger, help her verbalize her sadness or anger by saying, “I bet it makes you mad that your dolly is broken, especially since you didn’t say Tommy could play with it.” Ask her to remember how she felt the next time she starts to play with someone else’s property without asking first.

Disciplinary Actions When Your Child Steals

Speak calmly and in a loving manner to your child if you discover a small object in her pocket that doesn't belong to her after an outing to a toy store or a friend's house. Avoid yelling or speaking harshly. If you child is seeking attention in the future, going ballistic shows her that theft is an effective way to get it -- even though it is negative attention.

Tell her in simple language that just because she wants something doesn’t mean it is hers to take. Toddlers and many preschoolers simply don’t understand the concept of using money in exchange for goods.

Drive her back to the store or the friend's house to return the item. Once you are there, instruct her to say she is sorry. Prompt her to assure the store owner or friend that she will not steal again. Do this by saying, “Molly, do you promise never to take something without asking Mommy to pay for it or without your friend's permission?” If the child is preschool age, she can do this on her own after talking about the issue on the way there. It is important that you do not apologize for the child. She will gain more from the lesson if she does it herself.

Remind her about the rules the next time you make a trip to the store or a friend's house. This reinforces that inappropriate actions have consequences that are unpleasant for her as well.


  • Talk to your pediatrician or a child psychologist if she continues to disrespect the property of others. He can help you find the root of the problem.

About the Author

Chelsea Fitzgerald covers topics related to family, health, green living and travel. Before her writing career, she worked in the medical field for 21 years. Fitzgerald studied education at the University of Arkansas and University of Memphis.

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