A Mom Enraged The Internet By Refusing To Return Her Shopping Cart — But Was She Wrong?

Most people agree that good etiquette dictates returning the shopping cart. But are there exceptions?
Most people agree that good etiquette dictates returning the shopping cart. But are there exceptions? Fuse via Getty Images

It’s every parent’s worst nightmare: You turn your back on your child for just a moment to do something completely mundane, and when you look again, they’re gone.

Parents are advised to trust their guts when it comes to safety matters, but the truth is that gut reactions are often based on the size of a person’s fears rather than the size of the threat.

Leslie Dobson, whose personal website identifies her as a clinical and forensic psychologist, posted a TikTok recently that fanned the flames of parents’ fears. In a video that has now been viewed over 11 million times, she explains why she doesn’t return her cart when she goes grocery shopping with her kids.

“I’m not returning my shopping cart and you can judge me all you want,” Dobson says in the video, filmed with her sitting in the driver’s seat. “I’m not getting my groceries into my car, getting my children into the car, and then leaving them in the car to go return the cart. So if you’re gonna give me a dirty look — fuck off.”

Over 100,000 users have commented on the video. Many criticized Dobson for what they see as poor shopping cart etiquette and simply rude behavior.

“It was never about the shopping cart. It’s about the principle. It’s about answering the question: Am I willing to take some time out of my day to do something nice for nothing in return?” wrote user AresArchdemon.

Plenty of mothers explained how they resolve the issue either with strategic parking or by bringing their kids with them to return the cart.

“Either take the kid with you to return it or lock your doors for the 20 seconds your gone. Oh or park beside a cart return. I have 4 kids & return mine,” wrote user Jessica Cabe.

“Bring your kids with you to return the shopping cart after loading the groceries into the car ✨ i have two young babies and ALWAYS return my cart OR even park right next to the cart return 🤦♀️” wrote user Jess 🦋✨🤍.

While, as Dobson predicted, the comments were heavy on judgment — “I’m going to raise a child who always puts the cart back” — few addressed the fear at the root of Dobson’s choice.

In a follow-up video posted May 31, Dobson defends her decision, this time backing it up with some data: “I wanna give you some statistics. Last year 265 children were abducted in parking lots in America. Half of those were sexually assaulted.”

She continues, stating that a “single mom” returning a shopping cart is “prime” for a predator and mentioning that, in a lot of states, it’s illegal to leave your car running if you aren’t inside it.

The 265 figure comes from a fact sheet published by an organization called Kids and Car Safety. But what the organization was tracking was not people setting out to kidnap children: It’s the number of children who were inside cars when the cars were stolen. Car thieves typically abandoned the car once they realized a child was present, or removed the child from the car. Obviously, this is another variety of parental nightmare, but it isn’t the kind of child abduction that Dobson seems to be referencing. It is unclear where her claim of half of these cases involving sexual assaults comes from; HuffPost could find no mention of sexual assault on the Kids and Car Safety website.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children analyzes data from the reports of missing children that it collects. “Nonfamily abductions are the rarest type of case and make up only 1% of the missing children cases reported to NCMEC,” its website states. Nonfamily is defined as “someone known, but not related, to the child, such as a neighbor or an online acquaintance, or by someone unknown to the child.”

NCMEC has tracked a number of unintentional abductions that occurred during carjackings. In a report analyzing nonfamily abductions, NCMEC says there were 366 cases during the four-year period from 2016 to 2020.

Seventy-three of these 366 were motivated by an attempt to steal a car. NCMEC refers to these cases as a “co-ocurring crime” in which the abductor’s goal was to steal a car, not to kidnap a child.

The report highlights one such case: “A 1-year-old Black male child who was left in a running car at a gas station while the mother went inside to pay. During her absence, a stranger got into the car and drove it away. There was a cell phone left in the vehicle which allowed investigators to track signal information from the carrier. An AMBER alert was issued that included a description of the stolen vehicle. A resident called 911 after they saw the vehicle. The child was recovered within an hour and less than 5 miles from the abduction location.”

In a 2021 blog post by Patricia Davis on the NCMEC website, Davis cites a statistic of 40 children abducted in cars during vehicle threats in which an AMBER alert was issued “since the beginning of the pandemic.” She states that this is probably an undercount, since police say in many cases an alert isn’t issued. She also explains that thieves generally abandon the car, or the child, once they realize the child is present.

None of the NCMEC communications mention the return of a grocery cart, but they do support Dobson’s reluctance to leave her kids alone in the car — even if the risk comes from car thieves, not child abductors, and is relatively small.

Davis quotes NCMEC President and CEO John F. Clark: “Please, never leave your child alone in your car, not even for a few seconds, not even if you have them in your sight.”

In a subsequent video posted June 4, Dobson addressed the fact that most commenters have been critical, saying, “I’ve received probably, I don’t know, two- or three-thousand messages saying that people would post comments that they would not return the shopping cart because of safety, but they’re too scared of the attacks they’ll get on social media.”

She encourages viewers to “empower” themselves and “choose you” if they are in a situation where they feel their safety is at stake.

Jodi Smith, an etiquette consultant at Mannersmith, told HuffPost, “In general, it is the shopper’s responsibility to return the cart to the store, to a corral, or a place in the parking lot where it is not in traffic or blocking a spot.”

However, she continued, her motto is “manners matter, but safety first.”

“It simply is not safe to leave young children unattended in a car for many reasons. Parking next to the corral is the ideal situation, but not always possible. The next best option is to leave the cart in a place in the parking lot where it is not in traffic or blocking a spot,” Smith said.

She noted that parents of young children aren’t the only ones unable to return a cart. Doing so can also be a challenge for people with mobility issues, or for people who are assisting someone with a disability.

Smith observed that “this is a classic example of how the American culture holds the caretakers of young children to impossible standards. They are criticized for not returning a cart or they are demonized for leaving young children in a car unattended ... literally a no-win situation.”

She also suggested that an observer might offer to return a mother’s cart to the store for her.

“Look for ways to help,” Smith said. “Be part of the solution.”