By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman
A Seven Year Old Ganav?
Question: The other day I caught my son shoplifting. He is a 7 year old boy who is generally well behaved. It was a pretty routine trip to the local Makolet. When we got home, though, I noticed him munching on a candy bar that I did not purchase. When I asked him where he got it, he became quite defensive. To make a long story short, things are a bit tense now with him. How can I handle this situation in a way that will teach him how wrong it is to steal but without compromising my relationship with him?
Answer: The Gemara in Maseches Sukkah (46b) makes it clear that when assessing issues concerning chinuch, it is crucial to take into account the child’s perception of the situation, which can be very different from the parents’ (to really appreciate what the Gemara means, see Reb Yaakov, pg.341). In this vein, when discussing precisely the topic addressed in your question, Rabbi Elazar Orlowek (son of Rav Noach Orlowek) once made the following comment, “The first thing that a parent needs to realize is that when a young child does something like this, he’s not stealing, he’s just falling prey to his strong desire.”
Now, at first, that may come across as an awfully puzzling comment. After all, what motivates thieves to steal if not their strong desires?! So let’s try to understand this a bit. Imagine a very small child. So small, in fact, that he hasn’t even reached single digits yet. He’s all of four months old. Baruch Hashem, his gross motor skills are progressing beautifully, and he has really gotten into the swing of things as far as flailing his legs and arms is concerned. Sometimes, out of playfulness; other times, out of angst. Well, his mother had occasion to discover just how strong those pudgy little legs can be. While bending over to affix his fresh diaper, she got a solid kick right in the nose.
Now, tell me, does this child need to be taught how severely wrong it is to strike a parent? Of course not! Why? Because he does not have any awareness of the implications of what he just did. Sure, he saw and felt the physical sensation of his fat little foot swiftly pouncing his mother’s nose. And he may have even been quite amused by her reaction. But that does not meant that he just kicked his mother. At least not in the sense which would require us to respond to it from a chinuch perspective.
Now let’s come back to your seven year old tzaddik. Do you really think that he understands the implications of what he did to the extent that in his mind he committed an act of theft? Understanding the concept of theft requires that the intellect has already assimilated the preliminary axioms relating to property ownership. At the age of seven, such concepts are still quite new and most definitely not fully crystallized in his mind. As a matter of fact, if you’ll take a look in the Tur and Shulchan Aruch in Choshen Mishpat 235:1 you will see that m’doraysoh a child’s transactions are for the most part meaningless and have no effect until he reaches bar mitzvah age. Since, under certain situations (that were unfortunately quite prevalent in yesteryear), that could cause serious problems for orphaned children, Chazal enacted that a child’s transactions are valid from what they refer to as gil ha’peutos. For many children, if not most, that only starts from around the age of nine or ten. In any event, it is clear that even that classification of gil ha’peutos is only a special allowance that Chazal made for the sake of the child.
Yes, your son by this point is certainly aware of the procedure that when you go to the Makolet you put your things on the checkout counter, the cashier passes them by the scanner, and you take out money and pay for it. But that is precisely the point, to him it is still very much just an inexplicable procedure. One of those things that we do just because that is what we do (my nine year old daughter, whom I consider to be quite mature for her age, recently reacted with indignation when I informed her that we have to pay for electricity; she couldn’t fathom the “chutzpah” of the electric company to charge money for such a basic need). Think about it, do you think your seven year old boy has any real concept of money? The whole societal institution of exchanging inherently worthless pieces of paper for useful goods is quite a sophisticated concept.
The point is, at the end of the day, that in from your son’s point of view what he did was certainly no worse than taking away his younger sister’s toy when she was in the middle of using it (probably even much less since, after all, the candy bar was just sitting there!). It wouldn’t dawn on you to relate to that as theft even though one may be able to technically assert that it is. The same thing goes for your son taking the candy bar from the Makolet without permission. Because, really, in his mind that is all he did. He just took something without permission.
But theft? That is something of which he has no conception, and the introduction of which at too young an age can only have detrimental effects (see Rav Shlomo Wolbe’s Zeriah u’Binyan [chapter 1] where he elaborates on this concept of age appropriateness).
So, l’maaseh, deal with this – as far as the chinuch aspect is concerned – the same way you would deal with your son grabbing away a toy from his sibling who was in the middle of using it. Gently, but firmly, tell him that we are not allowed to take things from the Makolet without asking, and if he ever wants a particular item in the future, he has to ask you for it.
Also, bear in mind that if you are the restrictive type of parent as far as sweets are concerned, that may be what’s pushing him “to the edge”. It is not wise from a chinuch perspective to be too rigid with such things. After all, Chazal tell us that with children it is the right hand that must draw close and the left hand that pushes away. Meaning, the force of discipline must be the weaker side. It must be tempered. It is totally normal for kids to have a certain amount of sweets, in moderation. Furthermore, from a dietary perspective you may just be undermining yourself by being too strict, because it could cause a rebound affect later in the child’s life wherein the child is almost possessed by intense cravings for such things precisely as a result of having been deprived thereof in his formative years (there was an avreich who could not sit for more than a minute at a time to learn because his father did not heed the Steipler Gaon’s warning to let him play as a child because “If he doesn’t play now, he’ll play when he’s grown, because play he must”). So, if this is an issue, you should address it and reconsider your policies.
P.S. Don’t forget to pay the Makolet for the candy bar.
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