Why Boys Steal

A graduate of Yale College and Medical School, J. ROSWELL GALLAGHER has been specializing in the care anddoctoring” of boys since 1932. He has served as the School Physician at the Hill School and at Phillips Academy, Andover; as Consultant-in-Medicine at the Children’s Medical Center in Boston; and is today Head of the Health Department at Wesleyan College. His earlier articles in the Atlantic, “Can’t Spell, Read” (June, 1948) andThere Is No Average Boy(March, 1949), and the paper which follows have been drawn from his new book, Understanding Your Son’s Adolescence, an Atlantic-Little, Brown publication.



DOC, I guess I’ll have to have your help. I’ve got a young lad down here who just won’t leave the things on the counters alone. I thought I could handle him myself, but he keeps on swiping things from me and from some of the other stores. He seems to be a nice chap, and I don’t want to tell his father; he’d whale the tar oul of him, and I don’t think that would do any good. Would you talk to him, sort of off the record? . . . I’ll send him right up. His name’s Dan Dodge.”

That kind storekeeper’s telephone call raises a good many questions. Is stealing a common form of boys’ misbehavior? How should one deal with it? What sort of boy steals? And, most important of all, why do boys steal?

About 75 per cent of all court delinquency cases have to do with stealing, and a staggering amount undoubtedly goes undetected. No child is born with a sense of property rights, and the occasional impulsive appropriation of others’ belongings is to be expected from young children. We expect, ignore, and are amused by the infant’s grasping everything that comes within his reach. We accept this and his failure to feel that he should give anything in return. However, when he fails to grow out of these childish ways, what was excused and considered amusing becomes stealing, and when it persists or is frequent, it cannot be shrugged off with the comment that “every child steals, more or less.”

Dan was sixteen. He had been stealing for the past two years. He showed no resentment toward the storekeeper who had suggested that he see me, nor toward any of the others from whom he had stolen things. He seemed to welcome the chance to talk to someone about his problem. “I don’t know why I steal things. Mostly they’re things I don’t want. Anyway, I could buy them if I wanted them badly. Maybe you can figure out why I do it. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

There were five children in Dan’s family, two of them older than he. His father, a successful architect, was frequently away from home. His mother, when not running the household, spent her time and efforts on the League of Women Voters. Both were intelligent, energetic, forceful people. Dan admired them but seemed to feel no affection for them. For years he had received all he got in the way of attention, applause, or companionship from his “gang.” He was with them, in and out of school, from morning till night. He was not a leader, but he was a good follower, readily accepted and well liked. He played games well, though not brilliantly, was good at tinkering with autos, and could talk fluently about athletics.

During his childhood Dan did no stealing. Then, because of his father’s business interests, the family moved to a small town in another state. For some reason — perhaps he was always talking of how they had done things back in Cincinnati — he had a hard time making friends. He missed his old gang desperately. “I can remember that after school I’d wander down to the stores and just poke around. I didn’t want to go home, and all the other boys seemed to have something to do. It was then that I first started stealing — just little things — pencils, notebooks, scissors. I’m sure I didn’t need them. Now I don’t seem to be able to stop — maybe I don’t really want to.”

Dan’s stealing was senseless (neurotic, if you prefer) behavior. Though he had no practical use for them, he was taking from others things that belonged to them, without any thought of giving something in return. All of which, though insignificant and normal in the infant, is neurotic when it appears and persists in an adolescent. Dan wasn’t “getting back at” the storekeeper by stealing from him. He wasn’t, by stealing, obtaining things which he needed or of which he had been deprived by force of circumstances. He wasn’t seeking applause for his daring; he told no one of his exploits. He would seem to have been fulfilling, in an abnormal and socially unacceptable way, needs that had never fully been gratified in his early years and that were now almost wholly unsatisfied. He needed love and friends; lacking these he took things.

To try to cure rather than to punish him is not to condone his stealing or to ignore the seriousness of the offense, for punishment is not the only sure deterrent of future misbehavior. In Dan’s case, punishment would not have solved his problem. The most likely cause of his stealing was not material gain. Dan’s story illustrates the importance of attempting to discover the underlying cause of a boy’s misconduct. An adolescent’s behavior, acceptable or not, satisfies some need of which the boy may or may not be fully conscious. Its fulfillment will bring him pleasure, its frustration pain. Inevitably, these needs cannot be completely or immediately fulfilled, and satisfactory behavior of necessity demands compromises and a considerable amount of restraint. Compromise and frustration can be either good or bad. It is just as thoughtless to regard all frustrations as warping to the personality, or all tension harmful, as it is straightway to condemn every semblance of unconventional behavior. The healthy compromise effected in the fulfilling of biological needs is the one that will be both satisfying to the individual and satisfactory to the community in which he lives.

Infantile (neurotic) behavior appears in adolescents when satisfactory, satisfying compromises have not been worked out between their needs and society’s restrictions. Whenever these early normal needs (food, security, affection) are too little gratified, the hunger for them in later life is often abnormally great and apparently impossible to satisfy. It is this hunger which in one way or another the boy will try to appease.

Stealing, when it is an expression of neurotic behavior, is not a heinous, awesome, disgraceful business, but an ailment that cries for cure. The neurotic boy who steals should not be branded and cut out of the herd or held up as a disgrace to his classmates and family. Instead an attempt should be made to rehabilitate him.


HOWEVER, to say that all stealing (or other forms of misbehavior) is caused by a need to fulfill a biological urge, that all stealing is a manifestation of underlying neuroticism, is neither intelligent nor realistic. Children who have been deprived of things they enjoy or desperately need for themselves or others will steal. Such stealing is obviously a voluntary act, consciously motivated.

Mike’s family had always lived from hand to mouth. When his father slipped and was killed as the ferry neared its dock, the family was left in desperate circumstances. At twelve Mike was the oldest of five children. He was strong, independent, worldly-wise, and he knew the ways of the streets of the South Side. There was no sensitiveness or sentimentality about him. Without hesitation he stepped into his responsibility as the male head of the family. He worked in a store after school and every evening stayed late to sweep and clean and rearrange the goods on the shelves. But what Mike and his mother earned was barely enough for their rent and food and clothes.

Mike’s stealing began with little things — candy for his brothers, a small pocket book for his sister. Later he stole socks and underwear and groceries. His was consciously motivated stealing; there was no pleasure in it, no attempt to gain applause for daring, no unconscious need for punishment to satisfy guilt. Mike’s family was short of worldly goods but long on affection for each other. Their closeness to each other gave them a feeling of security that more fortunate children often lack. There is no point in delving deeply for unconscious motives or neuroticism here. Not psychotherapy or punishment, but material help and some firm but friendly advice, was what Mike and his family needed. When they got it and as he grew up, he was able to show that he could respect the property rights of others just as he had been able to help to provide for and protect those he felt to be dependent upon him.

Not all stealing for what is apparently material gain is as exclusively on a conscious basis as was Mike’s. Where there is evidence of pleasure and destructiveness along with the actual material gain from the stealing, it is wise to look for unconscious motivations as well as the obvious conscious one. When signs of untamed aggression color the picture, then more than routine punishment is necessary.

Joe Ferry was said always to have been a bad boy, destructive and undisciplined. His father, though not wealthy, could give his two children a comfortable home and they had bicycles and at least two weeks a year at a summer camp. Mr. Ferry, a tall, gaunt widower, was a good provider, and what he liked to call a strict disciplinarian. Everything in the household ran like clockwork. There were rules against practically everything. Theirs was an orderly household, except when Joe upset it, which was very frequently — but hardly a home. Ever since he was small, Joe’s time after school had been devoted to odd jobs; his father was determined to develop Joe’s sense of responsibility. Games and athletics, he said, were a waste of time. He found it hard to understand why Joe seemed to enjoy smashing things almost as much as he liked to break rules.

Joe was fourteen when he was first picked up by the police. For several weeks he had been asking his father to buy him a “twenty-two,” but his father had refused to discuss the matter other than to say that Joe couldn’t have a rifle even if he earned the money for it. Joe planned well, and if he hadn’t taken so much time smashing and upsetting other things in the sporting goods store that night, he probably wouldn’t have been caught red-handed. Joe’s stealing was certainly a conscious planned act, designed solely to get him the rifle his father had refused him. In addition, however, to this being a conscious act of his own choosing, there are obvious signs of neurotic behavior. Otherwise, why all the senseless upsetting of the shelves? Frustrated in his attempts to express his individuality, more aggressive than most and lacking an outlet in athletics, surfeited with advice and admonition and starved for affection, Joe needed much more than punishment to deter future misbehavior.

Dan, the first boy I have mentioned, had no need to steal and stole things of little value to himself. His stealing, as he said, “didn’t make sense.” Such stealing is obviously unconsciously motivated. Mike’s stealing was just as clearly a conscious matter. He and his family lacked things they needed and wanted and could not pay for, so he deliberately stole them from others. Joe’s stealing had elements of both conscious and unconscious motivation. His planning of the theft was deliberate, but his past failure adequately to adjust his aggressiveness and other frustrations undoubtedly played a considerable though unconscious part in his behavior.

In attempting to help the boy who steals, it is of first importance to assess the relative part which the conscious and unconscious play as motivators. The question to ask oneself is: What sort of things has the boy been deprived of that would lead him to steal? Were they tangibles or intangibles? A boy whose personality has been developing in a normal fashion will not steal unless he has been seriously deprived of material things; a boy who has been frustrated, rejected, and is unable properly to adjust his aggressiveness may steal even though his material needs are plentifully supplied.


STEALING is too complex a subject to be explained in a rule-of-thumb manner. But a few reasonable, valid comments can be made which may help in understanding and managing this and other forms of misbehavior.

Environment is often too quickly proposed as the sole cause of a boy’s stealing. Extreme poverty was obviously the primary factor in Mike’s stealing, but was it the only one? Many impoverished boys brought up among tough associates do not steal. Also many boys who are well off and who live among the most respectable sort of people steal whenever the opportunity offers. An act that has as much of the compulsive and subconscious in it as stealing will not disappear by making money, culture, and material things more widely available.

Too little or too mild punishment has been blamed for the great incidence of stealing, “Crack down on ‘em! That’s what we need. We’re too soft these days.” Inevitably those who want crime quickly followed by punishment insist that without this sequence young people will believe that misbehavior is sanctioned. On the contrary, it seems reasonable to believe that efforts to seek and cure the cause of asocial acts in an intelligent manner would serve adolescents as an excellent example of rational adult behavior. To ignore misbehavior is shortsighted and foolish, but to regard punishment as the sine qua non of treatment is hardly enlightened or mature. An effort to get at causes and reach a permanent solution would always seem preferable to a show of power.

A boy must learn to know himself and to understand his conflicts, his untamed aggression, his feelings of frustration or rejection. If he does, his misbehavior can be cured, and he will be a rehabilitated youngster. If he cannot be helped, he is not ready to enjoy the privileges of a free society. Admittedly, individualized treatment requires more time and skill than does routine punishment, but it can preserve the boy’s self-respect and make a real man of him. Public condemnation and disgrace with nothing done about the underlying cause of their misdemeanors lead boys to even more unacceptable forms of behavior.

Kindliness antedates psychiatry by hundreds of years; its antiquity should not lessen your opinion of its usefulness. That Dan came out well was entirely due to the efforts of his high-school principal, who wrote several months later: “Dan seems fine now. He hasn’t stolen a thing for months, and he says he is sure he never will, I really have done nothing for him — he deserves all the credit. It was easy to get him into some of the school’s activities, and this both gave him the chance to make friends and to be given little responsibilities which showed we all trusted him. [The italics are mine.] It’s pathetic and embarrassing how appreciative he is. Like all kids, he has never said anything much to me, but one day I found a note on my desk signed ‘Your friend, Dan,’ that would tear your heart out. The other boys have been grand to him — how often we underestimate their ability to help and to understand.” Willingness to help, to show kindness, trust, and friendship, may be all that many a boy will need. The least it can accomplish is to serve as a small example of the sort of conduct that was pleaded for two thousand years ago.

Prevention is always better than cure. Now a boy will behave is little influenced by preaching or threats. Boys are imitators and learn by observing the behavior of those whom they respect. They are deeply affected by the actions and attitudes of their family, gang, and other groups with whom they come in intimate contact. The rules of these groups a boy will respect. Laws, customs, rules imposed on him — in which neither he nor his group has had a part — mean little to him.

Adolescents should be encouraged to share in the governing of themselves and their groups. Their coöperation should be praised as quickly as one would condemn their anarchism. Too often when the discipline of a family or group threatens to go to pieces, the parent or leader comes out with a more stringent rule. If the group morale was good, if there was a feeling of unity and common purpose, a bad situation would not have developed. A new, harsh, unenforceable rule will only further alienate the group and decrease its respect for the one in authority. When things go badly, a conference out of which the group’s solution grows is the way to develop young people into responsible citizens. Never underestimate their ability to handle themselves or their own affairs. Given the opportunity to learn—and to make mistakes — they will do surprisingly well. Young people respond best to those who show that they trust them and who continue to trust them despite their errors. The adult who chooses to be the policeman and lawmaker is destined to be both busy and unhappy.

In his small groups the boy must learn the principles of group living. Of no less importance is the early recognition of those frustrations and excessive tensions that threaten to burst into asocial behavior. The need to become independent, the need to be accepted, the need for praise as well as censure, the need to find acceptable outlets for aggressive instincts — all these must be recognized and given adequate satisfaction if boys’ personalities are to develop properly and delinquency is to be prevented.

Membership in boys’ clubs, in scouting, and in student government in school will give a boy friends, activities, and opportunities for learning to get along with others and for Leadership. These groups keep him busy, widen his interests, and furnish him with the chance to know men who will be interested in him, men he can look up to. A “member" of such groups, he gets to feel he “belongs,” and he develops his respect for law and order by participating in his group’s government. In his club’s athletics and other activities he gets rid of his excess energy, he learns to win and lose, acquires useful knowledge, and is exposed to a variety of hobbies, any one of which may turn out to be meaningful in his future.