Addressing the tendency of schoolchildren to steal

BY Goolbai Gunasekara

Contrary to popular belief, a schoolchild doesn’t always steal because he or she comes from a deprived home or background. So let me run through the various reasons for theft among schoolchildren. Sadly, I have had to deal with many of them during my tenure as a school principal.

It matters little if the school is for affluent students or not. Stealing is an acquired human trait and it’s not limited to any social class. According to gossip, some of the more spectacular petty thieves have even been found among European royalty. But let’s get to these children…

There is the very rare case of children stealing for the thrill of it. The rush of adrenaline can be so powerfully exciting that the child often doesn’t even need what he or she is stealing.

Then there is the equally rare instance of kleptomania. For those who have not heard of the condition, let me explain that it is a mental compulsion, which causes people to steal. It is like many other mental conditions that can be treated by psychiatrists – if it’s proven. But how does one prove that a person is a kleptomaniac and not simply an outright thief?

The common reason for stealing is of course, the desire to possess what other children have. Obviously, care is taken not to get caught. If the objects stolen are small and fairly common – such as a pen, colouring pencils and storybooks – the thief can get away with it. Shorts and T-shirts in swimmers’ dressing rooms are difficult to trace unless there is some identifying mark on them since all school shirts look alike.

One young boy of about 12 stole two pairs of Nike shoes before he was caught. He admitted that he was never going to wear them to school but would do so only when he went out with his wealthier cousins. He had counted on his parents not noticing. He only got caught because his younger brother inadvertently made a remark to the form teacher and that gave her a clue.

There is a sad end to this tale. When alerted, the parents didn’t accept the school’s complaint and the younger brother was too afraid of his older sibling to tell his parents where the shoes were hidden. The mother was furious with me and took both children away to another school.

The children had been on a scholarship for swimming and the theft quickly became swimmers’ gossip. The parents almost sued me because they felt I had been indiscreet and told the new principal the true story.

Stealing money from parents’ purses is also more common than one realises. One lady almost sacked an extremely good maid as she kept missing money from her wallet. She only caught the young miscreant because he told her he had gone out to lunch with his friends and she knew he didn’t have any money with him. The maid was saved!

Principals have to guard against the ‘theft’ of exam papers. This is done by a student trying to bribe the person in charge of printing the question papers. International schools print their own exam papers and a child may succeed in getting a copy if the printer is bribable.

This little business was handled comfortably by a few international schools banding together and exchanging their question papers. This had an added advantage of schools having the benefit of another teacher’s style. The children didn’t know which schools were helping each other and the bribing of printers was soon stopped.

My daughter once lost a good box of imported colours when she was around 12 or 13. It was a time when Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s regime had stopped all luxury imports. However, the box was found fairly soon in a lower class.

A wise principal of one of Colombo’s missionary schools handled it like this… She went into the chapel with the frightened young thief, who was 10, and prayed with her. She then asked the child what she felt would make matters right; and the girl replied that she would apologise in front of the class; and of course, return the box.

In the end, she was spared the humiliation and only apologised directly to my daughter – who sympathetically allowed her to keep the box. The principal was pleased with both children.

The point here is this: ethical teaching should be the norm in schools. Right-mindedness (a Buddhistic ideal) is being touted now, and this will most definitely reduce the instances of stealing among youngsters if it is taught correctly.

I believe Dr. Tara de Mel is making an effort in this direction and I hope it continues to prosper; although with COVID-19 and the economic crash, one wonders how successfully its promotion can be sustained.

And yet, at this point in Sri Lanka’s disreputable educational history, what could be more important and valuable to our children than a common and solid ethical (not religious) education from which all Sri Lankan students will greatly benefit?