Have you heard of the “Shopping Cart Theory”? It’s everywhere lately, from Twitter to The New York Times. It’s a theory that originated on social media about the way society should work, and I am here to tell you it is reductive at best and harmful at worst. “The Shopping Cart Theory” goes something like this: Good people return the shopping cart. Careless, selfish, bad people do not.
Like so much else that’s bubbled up on social media, the argument lacks nuance, room for context, and crucially, ignores the realities of parenting completely. Hell, it mostly ignores mothers, who do 80% of the grocery shopping in families with children.
The “Shopping Cart Theory” asks us, as humans, to self-govern. Nobody can punish you for not returning the cart, it’s simply considered the right thing to do. The theory says that outside of dire emergencies, there are no situations which can excuse an unreturned shopping cart. The author of the widely circulated post that describes the theory goes on to further state, “A person who is unable to do this is no better than an animal, an absolute savage who can only be made to do what is right by threatening them with a law and the force that stands behind it.”
Wow. You okay out there, “Shopping Cart Theory” author?
I admit this is a little personal. My problem with this entire theory is that I know myself to be a good person, and there was an entire chunk of my life where returning the shopping cart was not always feasible, safe, or a top priority. Every single time this “theory” gets brought up, I feel indignant on behalf of all mothers who have ever had a sobbing infant in a Market Basket parking lot on a rainy, miserably cold day.
Remember when your kids were really little — as in “staying in the bucket car seat in the cart” little? You have to go to the grocery store to purchase basic necessities for your family, and if you are your child’s caregiver, you have to bring the baby, or, harder yet, multiple children with you.
Maybe you’re coming out of the store into snow or rain or other inclement weather. Maybe the child or children are hysterically crying, or sick, or just plain clingy. Maybe, like me, you’re doing your grocery shopping at a giant, incredibly busy store where the parking lot is vast and you were not fortunate enough to score a parking spot close to one of the corrals that serves as a cart return. You must now make a series of decisions. Go ahead and do a Google search on this topic and you’ll find endless forums of questions from new moms, asking the internet for (serious) advice on what they are supposed to do in this exact scenario. Do you load your groceries as fast as possible while your baby stays in the cart in the driving rain or snow, then return the cart and haul the baby and her car seat to your car? Do you risk leaving your baby in the car solely in order to return the cart?
Or maybe, just maybe, do you place the empty cart in the very corner of the parking spot so it can still be used by the next customer, allowing you to keep your baby safe and dry and supervised at all times?
I picked option three many times when my children were young. And it doesn’t make me a bad person.
If you ask me to make a choice between the convenience of another adult or the physical protection of my child, I’m choosing my child every time. I am directly responsible for my kid, and you better believe society would have names to call me if I didn’t take that responsibility extremely seriously. Obviously I wouldn’t leave the cart smack in the middle of a handicapped spot, which would be offensively thoughtless. I’m talking about doing the best you can in the moment.
My much larger issue with “The Shopping Cart Theory” is that it’s just one example of a societal faux pas around which we build an entire narrative. You’re either a good person or a bad person based on how you do this one thing. Please see also: bad parking jobs, dog poop left on a nature trail, or a tantruming toddler in a public space.
These things aren’t black and white. A bad parking job might be the result of an emergency. When you see a kid’s epic tantrum in the middle of a restaurant, you might just be seeing one very bad day. When you can’t know the context, why assume the worst intent?
By reducing human behavior to these kinds of overly simplified litmus tests, we give ourselves permission to walk around outraged by one another all the time, believing other people are lazy, selfish, careless, and in this case, morally bad. I don’t want to feel that way about other people, especially not over an unreturned shopping cart. It sounds exhausting.
I now have older children who can return the shopping cart all by themselves. When I see an abandoned cart (or a bad parking job, or a tantruming kid) I always assume it’s someone else’s mini-crisis that caused it, the kind I’ve had myself. It keeps me from being unnecessarily frustrated by a situation I don’t and can’t have all the information about, and reminds me to have empathy and grace.
And then I return the cart for that stranger who couldn’t and move on with my day, understanding that people and all their complexities can never be reduced to what they do with empty carts in parking lots.
Jennifer Taber VanDerwerken is a writer based in Upstate New York. Her work has appeared in the award-winning magazine The Beekman 1802 Almanac, Mini City Magazine and Mother.ly. Jennifer has also been featured on Design Mom and Cup of Jo. She is happiest when with her family, watching British television, hunting for vintage treasures, or fastidiously organizing any mess.