The Sticky Finger Syndrome

 – by Walt Mueller
©2003, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding

For several days in November, Jenna’s mom and dad half-heartedly watched the updates on actress Winona Ryder’s shoplifting trial as they took in the networks’ daily evening news reports. It was news that really didn’t interest or concern them.

But then they got the phone call. When Jenna’s parents hung up the phone they were in absolute shock. In their wildest dreams the thought had never crossed their minds that their 17-year-old daughter could be involved in shoplifting. They had raised her in a Christian home. She professed faith in Christ, was growing in that faith, and was active in their church’s youth group. To their knowledge she was growing into a young woman who was making Godly choices regarding her behavior. While Jenna certainly felt lots of peer pressure, she was outspoken and had usually stood strong against the powerful teenage temptations of drinking, drugs, and premarital sex. Then this. Lost in emotional pain and agony after their phone call from the police, Jenna’s blindsided parents drove to the police station looking in vain for quick answers to their “How” and “Why” questions.

When the dust had finally settled, Jenna’s discouraged mom and dad expressed their relief with the fact that Jenna had been caught. Now that they knew about it, they could deal with it. Sadly, not all parents have that luxury. Their kids steal and continue to steal without ever getting caught. Some research estimates that 30 to 40 percent of our teenagers shoplift on a regular basis. Shoplifting losses are estimated to be between $10 billion and $13 billion annually. The consulting firm Retail Forward, Inc. estimates that shoplifting will rise to over $15.5 billion in 2002. These numbers are staggering.

Some teenage shoplifters do so “professionally.” These are the kids who steal to buy drugs or to resell stolen items to make a profit. Usually, they are involved in other criminal activity as well. However, these “professionals” are in the minority. The great majority of teen shoplifters are like Jenna – they come from decent homes, know the difference between right and wrong, are leaders in their schools, churches, and communities. They have money and lack little or nothing in terms of material possessions. The organization Shoplifters Alternative reports that these kids “steal for a variety of reasons, mostly related to common life situations and their personal ability (or inability) to cope.” Research indicates that these reasons include:

Thrillseeking: Many teens say they love the “rush” and “high” that comes with getting away with it. Some research indicates that the serotonin-induced rush can actually become addictive, leading kids to want to steal again and again in order to get the high. Stealing the merchandise means little or nothing. It’s the rush that counts.

Beating the system: For some, shoplifting is a way to rebel against an adult-run system they see as constrictive and oppressive. If they can “outsmart” the system, they’ve pulled one over on adults. Sometimes the rebellion of shoplifting is aimed at parents.

Peer pressure: With so many kids shoplifting and talking about it, more and more feel the pressure to do it themselves. Some social groups even see shoplifting as a form of hazing. If someone refuses to shoplift, they are excluded from belonging to the group.

A Substitute for loss: A broken relationship, parents’ divorce, death of a loved one, etc. can all leave a teen feeling as if they were unfairly deprived. Some will shoplift to feel as if they are in control of their lives (even if only in a small way) and to a sense of loss on another.

Relief: Many teens describe their lives as “boring” or “depressing.” The adolescent years are also filled with the anxiety associated with so much confusing life change. As crazy as it sounds, stealing becomes a way to find relief in the midst of the turmoils of the teen years.

Envy and Want: We live in a materialistic world where our kids are under a constant barrage from advertisers who convince the teen population that you are what you have and what you wear. The resulting desire for things can be a powerful force in leading teens to steal.

The “dis-integration” of faith: We live in a culture in which there is no objective standard of right and wrong. Everyone decides what’s right and wrong for himself and herself. This attitude increasingly effects even our children who profess faith.  Yes, they profess faith in Christ. But that faith may not be integrated into every area of their lives. Consequently – and as crazy as it may sound – in their mind there’s nothing wrong with being a Christian teen and shoplifting.

There are some common threads that run among the parents of today’s “non-professional” teen shoplifters. For the parents of those who haven’t gotten caught it’s the thread of ignorance and invulnerability. It’s the thread that unconsciously says, “Not my kid.” And for those whose kids do get caught, it’s the thread that begins with the words, “I never imagined. . . .”

Now is the time to talk to the kids we are raising and ministering to about shoplifting. All of them know peers who do it and many do it themselves. We should start by reminding them of God’s commandment, “You shall not steal.” Then, we can continue by addressing the needs and voids that our teen might be tempted to fill with the consequence-laden dead-end “thrill” of retail theft.


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For more information on resources to help you understand today’s rapidly changing youth culture, contact the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.