Care and Feeding

My Shy, Straight-A Kid Just Got Caught Doing Something Horrible at School

It’s been going on for weeks, and I’m mortified.

A young girl looks sneakily at a piece of candy.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Last week, my daughter’s sixth-grade teacher emailed to let me know that my daughter was caught by another student stealing from the teacher’s candy reward desk drawer at lunch, when the classroom was otherwise empty. And worse, it seems she had been doing this every day for three weeks, but was caught only now. Apparently, she has been taking candy, hiding it in her backpack, then eating it outside at recess while she read a book by herself (she sat at the edge of the recess area and wasn’t interacting with other kids). I’m horrified. I worry about the theft, obviously, plus the fact that it was food she stole, plus the fact that my daughter is spending recess all alone, eating the stolen candy.

She doesn’t have any other concerning behaviors that we know of (no other issues with stealing, with food, or with making friends—although she’s always been extremely shy). This is her second year at the school, and we haven’t heard any other negative teacher reports. She gets straight As and has zero behavioral issues in the classroom. When I confronted her, she admitted to what she had done, but couldn’t explain why she did it. We set up a punishment (no screen time for two weeks, plus a letter to the teacher and an in-person meeting with her, plus a reflection activity at home), but we are now wondering if she should speak with a therapist. Is this just a good kid pushing the boundaries as she enters “tweenhood” or a cry for help? Would it be overkill to set up counseling? We are mortified and haven’t talked to any of our parent friends about it, so we don’t know where to turn.

— Pilferer’s Parent

Dear Pilferer’s Parent,

Would it be possible for you to let go of feeling mortified? I know that’s difficult—and not only when our children are still young enough so that their “bad behavior,” when it occurs, will often be interpreted by others as a reflection of bad parenting. Your feeling embarrassed, and your daughter’s picking up on that (which I guarantee she will, since children pick up on everything), can only make matters worse. Try to shake it off.

Even though you don’t know of any other instances of furtive behavior or issues around food, even though you believe she has no trouble making friends, even though she is a straight-A student and doesn’t actively misbehave in the classroom—and even though sitting alone with a book at recess is something I identify with (see my answer to Mom of a Reader)—I would say that it would not be overkill to have her see a psychotherapist who specializes in treating children this age. Perhaps this is just a way of acting out as she crosses the bridge between childhood and adolescence. But the stealthiness—over a period of weeks—is concerning. Rather than take a chance and hoping for the best, I would definitely want an intervention now. As you say, you don’t know of any other issues. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. You have nothing to lose and much to gain by seeking help with this.

— Michelle

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