Leaving a building a few days ago, I hurried across the lobby to a small foyer. There I stopped abruptly, my way blocked by a stranded shopping cart. The industrial strength commercial cart nearly filled the exit area. No one could enter or leave the building without manhandling that brown, supersized cart.

“You can learn character from a shopping cart,” I thought. I reached to pull the behemoth back into the lobby, but a man’s voice stopped me.

“Hey! That’s my cart. I’m waiting for someone to pick me up.”

I acknowledged the man, but cleared the exit anyway. No sooner had I done so than he left his chair, pushed the cart back into the foyer, and returned to sit in the lobby.

Why would he do that? Why park a huge empty cart in the cramped foyer? Why refuse to keep the big cart beside him in the lobby? How could he fit such a cart in a car? I know the man is far from homeless, so why take a shopping cart with him?

Questions abound in such situations, but the one I want us to consider is this:

How can you learn character from a shopping cart?

To put it another way, how can you and I learn from a shopping cart to strengthen our own character as well as that of young people we parent or teach?

Let’s begin by defining “shopping cart, and then study shopping carts the way a biologist studies whales, birds, or big apes. The biologist follows several steps, each one focusing more closely on the subject. We will not follow every biologist’s study, but look with me at four similar steps.

Definition: Store customers use shopping carts (trolley, carriage, buggy) inside a store to carry merchandise to the checkout counter, and then outside to their cars.

• Step 1 – Observe (allow a period of several days)

Your study begins with shopping cart observation. Just as a biologist observes animals in their natural environment, you will locate and observe shopping carts.

A shopping cart’s natural environment is normally supermarket, warehouse store, discount store, and mall. Begin with the collection of neatly arranged carts just inside the door. Move outside the store. Try to observe carts in as many different natural environment situations as you can.

Extend your observation beyond this natural environment. Single carts may sit along the street, by a bus stop, or in an empty field.

Observe the condition of each cart. For example, in the photo that heads this article, scraps of paper remain in a cart or two.

• Step 2 – Document

As a good scientist, be sure you authenticate your study – prepare evidence to support what you observed. It is not enough to say you saw carts at a big box store or in front of a bus stop. Anyone can make such statements. Bring back proof that you are not working purely from past memory.

Photograph the shopping carts you observe. A biologist photographs each spotting to support his report. Support each of your findings with a photograph of the location and condition of the cart. Record the location of each also, and detail the condition observed.

• Step 3 – Categorize (with a few assumptions)

Biologists categorize each finding, and you will do the same. Study each photograph and decide what “species” of human created the situation.

For example, the amassed carts inside a supermarket’s door might show that the employee had been of the orderly or disorderly species. A cart such as I encountered in the foyer might make us assume that a person of the self-centered species put it there. A photograph such as the one below might show that someone belonged to a careless species.

Do not create hard and fast groups. Simply sort evidence to prepare for Step 4.

• Step 4 – Explain

Armed with evidence, the biologist can now understand more about the animal being studied. Likewise, you are ready to understand how you can learn character from your array of shopping cart evidences.

You will need a complete list of character traits and a list of character trait definitions to complete this step. Click here for a list of character traits. Click here for a list of character trait definitions. Number your photographs and create a title for each one.

Head a page on your computer or in a notebook with a good title including the words character and shopping cart.

Insert Photo #1 with its title. Below the photo, write a few sentences about it. Add the category into which you placed it.

Then, using the list of character traits and definitions, determine the character of the person who last used that cart.

Look at the following abbreviated example.

#1 – Stranded Shopping Cart

I saw this cart near a bank, four blocks from the store that owns it. The cart looked good, but someone had left a dirty, flattened box in it. I listed this individual in the self-centered species group because he or she must have been thinking more about what was better for self than for the cart owner. Everyone knows you should not take a cart off store property, but this species of people want to make life easier for self even if their actions are wrong.

The person who stranded this shopping cart shows many missing character traits, and helps us understand areas in which we must build character. Here are just five traits.

  • Love: does what is best for the store by not stealing carts.
  • Consideration: understands the store’s policy on carts, and acts the way it would want to be treated if the cart was his/hers.
  • Respect: leaves empty carts at the store for other shoppers. It does not leave empty carts in the way on other people’s property.
  • Frugality: saves money for the store and themselves by leaving carts at the store so they do not have to buy new ones.
  • Responsibility: sees signs that say, “return carts here”, and walks the extra distance to put carts in the designated area.

You can learn character from a shopping cart – and build your own character so that you handle shopping carts differently in the future. A man or woman of character always and without fail returns completely empty shopping carts to their designated area, taking time to leave them orderly.