Are You Teaching Your Kid That Stealing Is Okay?

Before I begin this post, let me apologize in advance because I may end up sounding a little judgmental. I have very strong feelings about this issue and though I do believe that my opinion is the right one (of course I do!), I do encourage respectful conversation in the comment section, from both sides.

I would guess that every parent in the world (except for Madonna, I’m sure) has had the experience of bringing their child(ren) along to the grocery store. It’s not always a fun time, especially when the child is very young. (I always found the toddler age to be most challenging because I had to focus on my grocery list while keeping my boys entertained and busy at the same time.)

I would also guess that every parent in the world (except for Madonna, I’m sure) finds that it’s necessary at some point to deal with a child who is hungry while at the grocery store. Even if you pack a diaper bag, purse, or pocket with some kid-friendly snack like Cheerios or crackers, there will come a time when your child doesn’t want that because he or she wants a Fruit Roll-Up or a handful of grapes or cookies, all things that–coincidentally–happen to be readily available in mass quantities on the shelves surrounding you. Your kid, depending on his or her normal M.O., might even throw a tantrum over the issue.

So what do you do in that case? Do you grab the package of Oreos and open it up, feeding your kid what he wants and paying for the entire package at the checkout?

In my opinion, NO.

This is a huge, teachable moment that no parent should pass up.

My kids were always hungry and “in need” of snacks just like their counterparts. They eventually expressed their desire for snacks off the grocery shelf rather than the backups I brought along. I told them, “You can eat that, but you have to wait until we pay for it. We have to pay for it first.

I can still hear D’s little voice repeating, “We hafta pay firr it first, Mom.” He used to take great joy in slapping his chosen item down on the conveyor belt at checkout, stating “We hafta pay firr it first!” over and over, like a parrot. (Actually, he still loves slapping items on a conveyor belt, because he’s now a college student who loves going shopping with me partly because I pay, but that’s another post.)

OF COURSE my boys weren’t happy the first time I told them this. OF COURSE they didn’t understand. Imagine how it must be to not understand the concept of having to exchange money for goods and then being exposed to aisles and aisles of all of your favorite foods, plus many other exciting things you haven’t seen before! Tough, right?

Parenting is tough.

If you’re a long-time reader, you already know very well that Jim and I have never shied away from the tough part of parenting. You know that I firmly believe that consistency–which can be HARD–is one of the keys to raising great kids. (Want more on my parenting philosophy? I laid it all out in this post, “Parenting Secrets From Behind the Tiara”, one of my faves.)

One of your main goals as a parent is to teach your child about that which he doesn’t understand.

If your child is hungry in the store and doesn’t want what you brought, he should wait until you’re done. (Trust me, if he’s hungry enough, he’ll eventually eat what you brought.) If your child is hungry in the store and you didn’t bring anything, in my opinion you have two choices once you assess if he’s truly hungry:

1. If you accidentally took too long on your morning errands and now you’re grocery shopping during the time you should be feeding your kid lunch AND you don’t have a snack in your bag for him, then you made a tactical error. You should either save the grocery shopping for later OR show your kid what a responsible citizen you are by purchasing his snack before you allow him to eat it, and then you can continue shopping in peace.

2. If your kid is just hungry out of habit, tell him that he has to wait until you’re done grocery shopping to get a snack. Done. I know, I know: this can be hard. You might be subjecting yourself to incessant whining, and possibly a tantrum. Guess what? You should bring ear plugs or learn to tune it out. With consistent parenting, this won’t happen too many times before your kid figures it out that you’re not giving in.

Society has rules for a reason. When we enter someone’s business, we pay for items before we consume them. Period. I believe that allowing a child to eat his way through the grocery store can lead him to have blurred vision when it comes to other rules.

What do you think?


  • tracey - justanothermommy

    Oh, I totally agree. I’ve never even considered eating food before paying for it. I don’t even feel 100% comfortable in restaurants because it feels as though we are using their services without payment. I wouldn’t drive a rental car away before paying for it, watch a movie in the video store without paying for it, or read a book in a bookstore without paying for it (though I know that a lot of people do that and to that I say: Go to the Library.). So why would I eat grapes or a banana off of the pile that I’m carting around? That takes away from the weight! You will NOT be paying for it! You stole it.

  • christopher (@twistedxtian)

    Superstore (a grocery store chain in Canada) lets (offers?) parents come to the bakery counter and they will give the kids a chocolate chip cookie (one of those nice big bakery style ones).
    Now lots of parents aren’t big on giving their kids sugar or whatever, but some days it is a lifesaver with my 2yo to get it just before we line up at the checkout. His patience usually runs out by that point and it is enough to make the last few minutes in the store go just that much smoother.

  • Liz

    Not so much stealing, but sort of like folks who insist on double-parking in front of the school, so their kid could dodge through traffic (YIKES!) while the rest of us dopes follow parking lot etiquette.

    Also, I first read judgmental as judgmenta (SNorTZ!)

  • Mom24@4evermom

    I have to say it would never occur to me that this is wrong, nor does the store I shop at (I checked!) think it’s wrong. It makes no difference to them if the product is opened or closed, they just want it paid for, which I always do.

    When we go to Whole Foods, a highlight for J&J is always to get something out of the bakery case or a scoop of the gelato and eat it as we walk around. Not a biggie. In fact, in the case of the gelato, that’s exactly what it’s designed for, there’s no cash register at the gelato bar.

    But, even shopping at Walmart I’ve been known to open a package of crackers or whatever and let my kids start eating them. I truly don’t see the problem as long as they do get paid for.

    • Melisa

      That last sentence is actually what brought this post on. I was listening to the radio yesterday morning and the morning DJs were having a discussion about it, and one said that sometimes they forget to pay for things they open up and eat, because now and then they bring a snack INTO the grocery store and their brain gets confused….I don’t get it. I just feel like it keeps everybody on the up and up when you pay for it first. But again, that’s just my opinion! 🙂

  • Dawn

    Totally agree with all points. Another issue is children whining for everything they see in the store. I used to tell Nick before we entered the store that he could choose ONE treat to put into the cart (that wasn’t on my list), so he needed to think about the choice. If he whined about wanting more than that one treat, then his treat went back on the shelf. It worked for us.

    Also, I used to shop at 3 stores on a grocery run back in my sahm days. WalMart for the non-foods, Aldi for the pantry essentials and then a reg. grocery store for the rest. I would hand Nick the quarter from the cart at Aldi and once we got to the reg. grocery store, he’d head back to the deli counter where they sold ice cream cones for $.25. That was the highlight of the grocery shopping day for him. It kept us both happy and stress free because he knew he had that to look forward to.

  • Jennifer W

    I’ve always taught Noah we don’t eat anything until we pay for it because it’s stealing and thieves go to jail. We’re VERY clear about paying first for stuff first, and never open closed packages, but the deli or bakery will sometimes give a sample to your kid if you’re in a pinch. In fact, my kid pointed out another kid who was eating out of a bag of goldfish & loudly stated, “MOM! They’re stealing!” Mortified, completely. Proud, you bet!

    Honestly, I’d be the only one to blame if my son ever got in trouble for shoplifting once he’s old enough to know better. It’s a slippery slope.

  • Tara R.

    I haven’t done this often, and mostly it would be bottles of water (poor planning on my part), but if I pay for it at checkout, I never considered it stealing. I just thought of it like eating at a restaurant first, then paying.

  • PJ Mullen

    I’ve never opened anything for my son. He can hold onto it, but he knows we pay before he can have what’s inside regardless of whether it is a toy or a snack. If we’re grocery shopping he knows he can get a free cookie (two, usually, since his sister doesn’t eat hers most of the time) from the bakery at the store. When I tell him where we are going he’ll even ask “Papa, I have a cookie at Harris Teeter?”. So know I plan my trips for after lunch time and tell him only if he eats everything I put on his plate 🙂

  • Katie

    I completely agree with you, and have voiced my opinion on this, but umm, I’m not a parent (and don’t plan on being one), so my opinion doesn’t count for much.

    But hey… my parents did this to me, and I didn’t come out any worse for it. I was NEVER allowed to eat anything before we paid for it. And I wasn’t allowed to sneak anything into the cart, unless my mom deemed it somewhat healthy for me.

  • Headless Mom

    I have, on occasion, opened a bottle of water as I shopped. I don’t think the kids have ever been present.

    Open food before you pay for it? People actually do this? That’s crazy.

    (I’m not kidding. I’ve never seen this. Ever. And wouldn’t allow my kids to do it. Not that they’ve ever asked, but still.)