"Look at my three!" my son exclaimed as he took a little purple foam number three from his pocket.
"Where did you get that?" I asked him.
"It's from school." he replied.
My son had stolen a little purple foam number three from the Early Learning Centre/Preschool that he attends during the week. While it may not seem like a big deal, and it is such a simple little item, taking things that don't belong to you -- or stealing -- is not a behaviour that is tolerated in our house. I didn't get mad at him, though, in fact I found it hard to keep it together as he hugged and cuddled this little foam three while saying "But I love my three." Instead I told him that even though he loved the three, he still should not have brought it home, and I told him that it made me sad that he would take something from school that didn't belong to him.
It can be difficult to explain the concept of stealing to a 4-year-old. When he was 3-years-old he took a penny from a little ice cream shop that had been set up in his room, and clearly he did not remember what I had told him about taking things that don't belong to him. But what my husband and I have consistently done is talked to him about taking things that aren't his, and telling him that he will be taking the item back to school to give to his teachers and apologise to them for taking it home.
What makes it tricky is that we tell our children that they can take things like the artwork that they have done at school, and maybe that's a bit confusing and sometimes they think that it's okay to take other things as well. We told our son that he is not allowed to take toys home from school because then there will be no toys at school left for him to play with while he's there, and that's not fair to him or the other children.
Honestly, I don't think that there can be much more that is said on the subject when addressing a 4-year-old. Consistency is the key in all situations that a toy from school mysteriously makes its way home in a pocket or a backpack, as is the expectation that it will be taken back and an apology delivered.