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How Exactly Should Parents Define 'Stolen'?

To be fair, his brother had picked it up first, but he took it eagerly and made it his own. It was small and round, fluffy with a funny face, and it fit perfect in the tender palm of a quiet boy that craved the constant comfort of his hands always moving.

It was obvious that this object didn't belong there, brushed to the sidelines of the mall's busy walkway, unnoticed and perhaps unwanted. It was the right brand for the store next door and the right size to have been dropped without notice and lost forever to the lazy bustle of Sunday shoppers.

His first instinct was right enough, putting place with product and investigating the store to label the piece a child's toy lost or shop item missing, and while he later claimed not to notice that it was indeed sold there, he seemed earnest enough in his ignorance that I believed him. That meant that the toy belonged, through the process of elimination, to someone other than him—the plaything of a child left behind like a memory.

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It wasn't long before I noticed him acting strange. I couldn't put my finger on it at first, but there was something odd about his body language. Then it dawned on me, he was being sneaky. He was hiding something.

It was the toy.

He managed to bring it home without my knowing and that added deception to the list of things wrong with this picture.

"You knew the toy didn't belong to you," I said. "Either it belonged to the store, in which case keeping it is stealing, regardless of where you found it ..."

"I didn't see it in the store," he said.

"Then we can only assume that it belonged to another kid. What if you lost one of your toys in a public place? How would you feel if someone else found it and decided to keep it?"

"Bad."

"Then why was it OK for you to keep it?" I asked. "What should you have done?"

"Take it the lost-and-found," he said. And he knew it. He knew that what he did wasn't the right thing and that stuck in me. It stuck something fierce.

"I get that you liked it. I appreciate that you checked the store, although you should have asked someone who worked there, because they do carry it. But I'm concerned that you didn't think of the kid that lost it. I'm worried that you went out of your way to hide it from me. The first part of that is selfish and the second part is sneaky. That's not a good combination."

We have spent years discussing, preaching and, hopefully, showing empathy and honesty from what we thought were all the angles, and yet there we sat on the inside of a new one. His face was swallowed in a frown while I sat across from him restraining my words and pacing my thoughts.

"What should we do now?" I asked, torn between driving back to the mall of the crime and dreading the distance involved.

We decided to call the store. Yes, they had the product in stock. No, none of them were missing a part. Yes, they had a lost and found. No, nobody was looking for the toy in question.

They suggested that we keep it, although, they added, they would reluctantly place it in their lost and found in order to assist in my parenting moment. They said it wasn't necessary to leave our contact info, kind as it was to offer to buy a new toy should someone come looking for the piece that got away—their policy was to exchange it, no questions asked.

"Do you think you should keep it?" I asked.

"No," he replied.

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"Then maybe you should," I said. "You can keep it, not as a plaything, but as a reminder to do the right thing, even when it seems the hardest."

"OK," he said, and then he took it in his hand. He held it all the heavier.

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Photograph by: Whit Honea

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