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Stealing - "Cuz ain't a reason"

by Steve Houseworth, MA

 "THEFT TALK" ™
 

My seven-year-old daughter, Sherry, scurries into the kitchen, climbs onto the counter; her target -- the cookie jar.

A dutiful father, I look at her and say, "Uh, uh, uh, no cookies before dinner."

Unwilling to retreat without an argument she replies, "Why not?"

I respond, "Cuz I said so. That's why!" My authority won't be challenged,

With youthful innocence my little girl looks up and tells me, "Daddy, 'cuz' ain't a reason."

'CUZ' IS NOT A REASON. Sherry is right. Cuz is not a reason. In my attempt to gain compliance I demanded obedience and depended on the power ubiquitous between parent and child. I informed Sherry of the rule: No cookies before dinner, but I did not provide the reason for the rule. What will Sherry do the next time she wants a cookie and I'm not in the kitchen? What would you do? When no one is around to enforce rules and, without insight into the reason for the rule, it is not at all illogical to pursue your hearts desire.

The 'cuz principle cuts at the core issues behind "THEFT TALK™." In the spirit of "knowledge is power" and "an ounce of prevention costs less and is worth more than a million dollar prison", "THEFT TALK"™ counselors conduct school assemblies throughout the Pacific Northwest and counsel more than 2000 adult and juvenile theft offenders each year. "THEFT TALK"™ teaches people why stealing is wrong in a way which they can not forget or deny, and in a way which goes far beyond imposing the rule. "THEFT TALK"™ explains the reason for the rule, because . . . 'cuz ain't a reason.

"THEFT TALK" began when two juvenile court counselors discovered the missing link of empathy, understanding, and responsibility while interviewing thousands of youths, offenders and non-offenders alike. Both groups knew the rule -- it's wrong to steal. The shocking surprise was the vast majority of both groups didn't know why stealing is wrong. These youth knew they would be punished if they were caught but only 5 percent of them mentioned the affect stealing has on the victim.

In our culture we do not teach people not to steal. We use a power oriented approach, an attempt at providing a quick answer. We teach rules. We teach blind obedience. We don't teach people to think on their own. We treat people as if they are not capable or competent to learn to guide their own lives, make their own choices, or come to good conclusions. We teach fear of punishment. But, in the end what we really teach is, "If you are going to steal; don't get caught, get good." We seem to be assuming people need to progress from having parents, to having parents and teachers, and that the ultimate adult still needs a boss, police, laws and government regulation in order to keep us civil. A notion "THEFT TALK"™ dubs The Parent Complex.

 

Why is it wrong to steal?

When asked why it is wrong to steal most people are baffled or respond with an inaccurate, circular answer. Answers typically focus on one of two categories; they either restate the rule -- answer in a way that confirms the rule that stealing is wrong, or they define stealing.

Examples which restate the rule - stealing is wrong, but don't say why it is wrong:

  • It's not right (stating that it is "not right" does not explain why it is wrong, -- not right)
  • It is against the law, it's illegal. (This statement tells us that society tells us stealing is wrong -- but not why society believes it is wrong. Why is it illegal?)
  • It is immoral. It is against the 10 commandments. Morals are ethical/personal/or religious ideas about what is right and wrong. The eighth commandment states the rule -- thou shall not -- but does not explain the rule. (Adequate explanations are found throughout the Bible.)
  • You can get into trouble. (Knowing you can get in trouble shows you know that something is wrong with stealing, but does not tell why it is wrong. If you don't get in trouble, is it still wrong?)

Examples which define stealing -- or convert the word "steal" into a phrase -- don't provide an adequate reason as to why it is wrong:

  • You are taking things that aren't yours, things that don't belong to you. (This is a definition of stealing but does nothing to explain why it is wrong to take things that aren't yours.)
  • You are taking things without permission. (This answer narrows the definition of stealing, but, does not explain why it is wrong to take things without permission.)
  • It costs other people money. Makes prices go up. (This answer accepts that it is wrong to steal -- costs other people money; this answer does nothing to explain why it is wrong to "cost other people money."

What about the victim?

All of these answers make no reference to the effect stealing has on an actual human being -- the victim. Answers that focus on the rules,( e.g., it's against the law), make no reference to the injury caused to a person.

Rule-oriented answers demonstrate either a focus on the fear of getting caught or blind obedience. Answers which define the word "steal," (e.g., you are taking things that aren't yours without permission), are more closely associated with the victim. At least they reference lost property or money, but they still do not touch on the damage done to the actual human being - the victim.

Does everybody think this way?

Interestingly, offenders and non-offenders alike come up with the same answers outlined above. "THEFT TALK" research shows the less delinquent the youth, the greater the likelihood the youth will focus on redefining the word "steal." Conversely, the more delinquent the youth; the greater the probability the he or she will focus on the rule.

Three groups were selected. 1) The non-delinquent group was from Portland Public Schools. 2) Youths referred to "THEFT TALK" by the courts comprised the minor offender group. 3) The delinquent group was made up of youths committed to MacLaren School for Boys, (one of Oregon's State Training School). All of the youth were asked the question, "Why is it wrong to steal?," and told to provide their best answer on the form provided. There was no prompting or multiple choice examples.

Results showed the non-delinquent public school students were more likely to give answers restating the word "steal" than either the minor offenders or the delinquent youths. The minor offenders showed a relative balance between restating the word "steal" and stating the rule - "it's not right," -- it's wrong. The delinquent youth were heavily focused on the rule. Only 5% of the responses from all three groups made any reference to the effect stealing has on the victim.

With these research results the founders concentrated their effort. The primary objective of "THEFT TALK" is to shift the thinking of the community from the rule, i.e., it's wrong, away from the property or money,- to the effect stealing has on a living, feeling human being.

From "THEFT TALK's" perspective, those who restate the rule -- it's wrong, and don't steal are the ones who are obedient and apt to conform to the communities guidelines.

Those children who only know the rule, and still choose to steal, do so because of the cuz' principle. These youth are willing to challenge the rules.

Those who define "steal," and are not involved in stealing make this choice because they have at least a primitive sense of empathy.

Those who define the word, "steal" and choose to steal, do so because they lack adequate empathic connection to the person they harm by their action.

Most victims of burglary attest to the fact that their stolen possessions and their dollar value are dwarfed compared to the personal injury felt.

Any little boy who has worked hard to earn money to buy the bike of his dreams knows the pain of its theft goes deeper than the physical loss of the bike. The hours, the huge chunk of his life spent earning the money are the real issue. A burglary victim can replace the TV and VCR; those items are insignificant. The child can replace his bike, but he can't replace the hours devoted to earning it.

And of course to you and I, who pay higher prices because of shoplifters -- sure, the money is important, but how about something more important -- the time it takes us to earn that money. Isn't that what has really been stolen?

"THEFT TALK" uses a group counseling/educational model. Tri-county theft offenders come to counseling expecting to sit through another scolding and lecture on the laws and punishments for larceny. "THEFT TALK"™ tells no one not to steal. It spends little time on laws and punishments. Thieves know the rules; they know it is wrong to steal. The offender makes his own decision. Any thief knows there will be punishment, if caught. Why waste time repeating words already fallen on deaf ears?

Stealing is a logical behavior. "THEFT TALK" research supports this conclusion. Look at the world from the theft offender's perspective. First, a thief makes elaborate plans to ensure he is not caught. Believing he can not be caught, the thief is free from the threat of punishment. If a person can steal a cookie and not be sent to bed without dessert, why not grab the cookie? Once a thief has convinced himself he can elude detection, he is certain he is free of painful punishment. If he cannot be caught, he will not be punished; so why not go ahead and steal? From the theft offender's point of view, stealing makes sense.

Irresponsible Society. Our society has let the youth of this nation down. Call it a lack of morality, a void of standards, ignorance or deficient values. The fact is, stealing is a selfish crime which satisfies the desire humans have for instant gratification. Is it the yen for a quick fix? Are we using the minute rice method for parenting our children? If so, it only works while we watch the pot. The expedient way to control anyone is with rules; demanding obedience and threatening punishment for disobedience. This dictatorial method of control is efficient only if the enforcer is omnipresent. Like my daughter and the cookie jar episode, if there is no parent present, you can bet a poor choice will be made. Our society threatens creative consequences, imposes rules and demands obedience. We are lax in the development of moral character or insight.

Shakespeare said, "Let them obey that know not how to rule." The role of parent, health care professional, or counselor is not to push children along the narrow path of obedience, but to direct them down the road of a life enriched with understanding, information, and insight. A nurturing, nonrestrictive approach is, as Holding Carter said, "There are only two lasting bequests we can give our children. One is roots; the other, wings."

Providing rules to follow and threats of punishment for disobedience is direct and efficient. But, Cicero said, "Cultivation to the mind is as necessary as food to the body." Instill a value system, a sense of right and wrong. Help a child develop a conscientious frame for moral standards. It takes more time -- time well spent. It has been said that he who gains knowledge gains the ability to be sorry.

Deep concern for morality. When I ask a child, "Why is it wrong to steal?" and the child replies, "Cuz if you get caught you get in trouble, " I am deeply concerned for the child and the society that encourages this rationale. Of greater concern is the knowledge that this is the answer I receive from thousands of kids.

To fully expose the child's level of moral development, I continue, "Well then, if you do not get caught, have you done anything wrong?" I am always shocked and saddened to watch children struggle with that simple question. Their answer is proof enough that, " 'Cuz' ain't a reason!"

 

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