The following handwritten note was on my storefront counter one morning last week, as I arrived in the quiet pre-dawn hours to enter some backlist orders and ponder the impending holiday event schedule:
I stole a lip balm. And I never ment to. It was an awful choice and I feel really really bad because I realized it was wrong. It was $8. So I am willing to give you 10$. I learned from my mistake and will never do it again. Again i feel really bad please forgive me. – Sarah*
Calendar conflicts and backlist specials were quickly set aside, and I looked for a note from my evening staff with more details. In their usual conversational shorthand, this was the story I gleaned from the post it notes on the register:
A 9- or 10-year-old was brought to the store by her dad, who stood about 10 feet behind the girl as she approached the counter. She offered the handwritten note, and then explained what she had done. Our bookseller thanked her for her honesty, and then looked up her parent to ask for direction. “She needs to pay for it, and then give it back.” The staffer did as asked, and the embarrassed child left the store. From the staffer: “She was totally ashamed. We didn’t make a big deal about it, and we sure hope she’ll be back.”
This was certainly not our first experience with children shoplifting small items, but it may be the most heartfelt apology note we have received of late. Often, the shoplifted item returns not from the child, but the parent. “Oops!” they will exclaim. “I didn’t notice that Matthew had this until I was doing his laundry, and I found it in his pocket! Oh, well, no harm done.” Other parents will call, saying “we got home and realized that four of your trains were in our stroller. We’ll try to remember to drop them off next week when we come for story time.” Sadly, the trains only rarely return, and if they do, the parent may act as if they are doing us a favor, and deserve some type of reward. While we always thank them for their honesty (and the extra trip) it is clear that some vague notion of “it’s a business, and they just write stuff off” is at play, and they are doing us a favor by returning the purloined merchandise.
Other parents deflect the guilt of their offspring’s behavior by blaming us for unexpected outcomes. “This squishy mesh thing exploded in my car when my four-year-old was playing with it!”
“Oh, no! I’m so sorry! Do you have your receipt? I’ll scan it to give you a refund.”
“Well, no. I didn’t see he had grabbed it. But there’s goo all over the car seat, and I’m going to need to have the entire SUV detailed! That product is defective.”
For the children who do take ownership of their “five finger discounts,” we try to accept their apologies genuinely while still maintaining our friendship. Often, I tell young people that I am very proud of their bravery, for it’s pretty easy in our world to get away with things. Even easier is just quietly returning the item, or leaving it for their parents to do. The really hard thing to do is to look someone in the eye, confess the theft, and apologize. That’s the kind of act that friends who care about each other are willing to do, and that’s the kind of courage that it takes to be a good person in this world. We will all make mistakes, but it is how we choose to fix them that makes us into good people. I then usually offer my hand to shake, and ask if we can still be friends. It’s important, I believe, to acknowledge that relationships are chosen, and that children have the right to end friendships with adults if they feel uncomfortable. I always mention that as far as I’m concerned, we will never, ever speak about this again, and I probably won’t even remember by tomorrow, because “I’m just forgetful like that, you know. Have you read any good books lately? Can I show you what I’m reading?” And on we go, hopefully, to their next chapter in growing up, and my next chapter in being one of the trusted adults in their lives, who understands that questionable choices can be made and forgiven, and that telling the truth is more important than getting away with something that we both know is wrong.
My hope, of course, is that we both teach and learn two lessons: first, that stealing things is really stealing trust, and trust is one of those very precious commodities in this world of too much stuff. The second lesson (which is much more important) is that almost anything can be forgiven. It is way, way more important to me that a young person finds allies and careful listeners in my bookstore than judgment and the disapproving eye of an adult who sees them as a threat rather than a friend. So if we can manage each of these conversations carefully and with respect, perhaps we can earn their trust when the stakes are much, much higher, and the confidences they share are more personal, more scary, and much more important. The missing trains and the lost lip balms will ever-so-slightly dent our bottom line, but the loss of our connections to our young readers will break our hearts.
*Sarah is of course not her real name, just as stealing a lip balm does not define her, and both of these “tried on” identities can now be forgotten.