Nondelinquent Youths' Stealing Behavior and Their Perceptions of Parents, School, and Peers

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Correlates of stealing behavior were investigated in a sample of 167 nondelinquent 10- to 15-year-olds. Stealing was related to youths' attitudes toward parents and school, as well as reasons for stealing. Stealing was most frequent among older males. Attitude toward school was most consistently related to stealing behavior, though perceptions of family's values and the consequences of stealing were also important. Interventions with youths at risk for continued covert antisocial behaviors are discussed.

In a review of factor analytic studies, Loeber and Schmaling (1985) noted that antisocial behaviors in childhood may reflect two distinct dimensions: covert, nonconfrontative behaviors (i.e., stealing, lying, and truancy) and overt, confrontative behaviors (i.e., aggression, defiance, and arguing). Much of the research on child and adolescent psychopathology has focused on the overt dimension (Gorman-Smith, Tolan, Loeber, & Henry, 1998). However, investigators have begun to concentrate on the role of covert antisocial behavior in the etiology of later social maladjustment and delinquency (Loeber, 1982; Loeber & Dishon, 1983; Patterson, 1982, 1986; Stouthamer-Loeber, 1986). Evidence points to the stability of nonconfrontative stealing from adolescence through adulthood (Loeber, 1982), as it is commonly found in the retrospective self-reports and official police records of adult offenders (Belson, 1975; Farrington, 1996; Robins & Rataliff, 1978, 1980). Persistent involvement in theft during adolescence may be a precursor to more serious criminality, especially when such behavior is compounded by aggressive tendencies, academic failure, or family maladjustment (Loeber, 1996; Loeber, Tremblay, Gragnon, & Charlebois, 1989; Patterson, 1986).

Mental health professionals often face the perplexing task of determining how to address nonconfrontative stealing behavior. Usually, it is not easily observed or quickly detected, and frequently requires input from others (i.e., accusers). Because many adults are hesitant to make an accusation against a child, treatment of the offender is often delayed. However, concern about the seriousness of such behavior heightens after a pattern of stealing is noted (Mitchell & Rosa, 1981).

Unfortunately, relatively little is known about the extent and nature of nonconfrontative theft in the normal population during the critical preadolescent and early-adolescent years. Estimates have ranged from 4% to 10%, but these figures may be outdated and are based primarily on parental reports (MacFarlane, Allen, & Hozik, 1962; Rutter, Tizard, & Whitmore, 1970). In addition, data are sparse on the determinants of occasional versus chronic theft, as well as circumstances that motivate youths to steal or discourage them from stealing, though several theories have been postulated in both the psychological literature (see Gorman-Smith et al., 1998, for a review) and the sociological literature (see Warr, 1993).

A variety of precursors to escalating involvement in antisocial behavior have been offered, including parent-child difficulties, aggression at home and school, child abuse and neglect, low level of parental involvement, negative attitude toward school, school failure, and negative peer influence (Gorman-Smith et al., 1998; Kagan, 1991; Patterson, 1986; Steinberg, 1987; Warr, 1993). Moreover, research has begun to elucidate factors that influence youths' decision-making about stealing, such as level of punishment, moral reasoning, and justice/fairness issues (Bell, Petersen, & Hautaluoma, 1989; Greening, 1997; Kahn, 1992). Nevertheless, a greater understanding of stealing behavior among nondelinquent youths is needed if effective prevention and treatment programs are to be designed (Seymour & Epston, 1989).

The present study investigated the occurrence of nonconfrontative, covert acts of theft as reported by nondelinquent youths. …