COLUMN: Returning a cart is a lesson on doing what’s right

Published 5:42 pm Tuesday, May 2, 2023

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We picked up each bag in the grocery cart and placed them in the car until the cart was empty. “Would you, please, push the cart back,” I asked the 14-year-old with me. He replied: “My mom never returns them, and look,” he said motioning to carts scattered throughout the parking lot, “No one else returns them. Can’t we just leave it here?” 

“No.” I said, “Take it back.” He pushed the cart to the nearest return and walked back to the car. I began to explain why returning the cart was the right thing to do. I hoped that the explanation would allow him to understand why we returned the cart and provide some lessons that would expand beyond the grocery store. 

The first thing that returning the grocery cart teaches children is respect for the employees of the stores they visit. The carts do not return themselves, which means that someone must gather all the carts. That someone is an employee and taking a few extra steps to place the cart in a designated return area helps the employees gather them faster and easier. It’s a small request the store makes, and we should respect the workers at the stores we visit. 

Next, it teaches respect for others. Leaving a cart in the parking lot blocks parking spaces that others could use, and carts that are not secured may get caught in the wind and bump into someone’s vehicle. We wouldn’t want a space where we want to park to be blocked by a cart and we wouldn’t want our car to be damaged by a rolling cart, so we should do what we would want others to do for us. There’s something golden about that. 

It teaches, as well, to do the right thing even if there are no consequences for not doing so. There is no penalty for not pushing a cart back at the grocery store. The police won’t show up, there’s no financial penalty, and you won’t be banned from returning to the store. It’s a matter of integrity. Pushing the cart back reinforces that we should do the right thing no matter who is or who is not looking and regardless of the penalty or reward.

Lastly, it teaches that respecting others and doing what is right is important even if others are not doing the same. We’ve all seen grocery carts scattered throughout parking lots. It may seem that “everyone else is doing it,” but we should never allow the actions of others to cause us to do something that we know is wrong. 

Returning a grocery cart may not seem like much, but our actions around things like this teaches our children a lot whether we verbalize it or not. They are watching, and they are learning. Explaining the reason why we push the cart to a designated return area is important, but the most important thing is to continually demonstrate a life of integrity and to guide them to do the same.

Nathan Rice is a Hampton Roads native and can be reached at