Opinions | Give kids their own shopping carts, and what should we expect

Last week I saw a segment on the news about an initiative at Target to withdraw the child-size shopping carts that the company had tried out in 72 stores in August. A Google search of “Target kids’ shopping carts” finds numerous articles and YouTube videos with titles that describe the initiative. Fortune called it a “shin-bashing menace” and Business Insider wrote about “‘nightmare’ kids’ shopping carts that shoppers called ‘vehicles of mass destruction.’”

The storyline in the various news outlets is about the power of social media to bring about rapid response and change. But I believe the story of the shopping carts is really about parenting and about setting expectations for a child’s behavior.

Among the viral communications that seem to have affected the abandonment of the shopping cart initiative are one of a mom taking time to look at a product while her child continuously bumps the kid cart into her, and another one where the children are zigzagging down aisles. There were other postings of moms (and it was primarily moms who posted) whose children were devastated when they needed to put back all the items accumulated in their kid cart, and those who lamented that their shopping time had doubled as they needed to direct and redirect their child.

When I viewed the various videos and accompanying vitriol, I was struck first by the rather shortsighted understanding of early childhood behaviors. I lamented the opportunity lost in the outcome. As a Jewish educator, I thought about this issue in light of the biblical injunction “do not place a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14). Rabbinic sources list different sorts of stumbling blocks — some concrete, others metaphorical. They grapple with the definition of “stumbling block.”

The category that would apply here is that of placing a person in a situation where he or she will be unable to exercise self-control. It would appear that this category would call for a ban of the shopping carts. But we know that many, if not most, young children can exercise self-control when handling items that could be used to inflict harm. Young children play in sandboxes with sand that if thrown could hurt another child’s eyes, and they play with all manner of things that could harm themselves and others.

Is self-control innate or is it a result of instruction? Jewish tradition holds parents and teachers responsible for guiding children in the development of self-control.

How is it possible that both the parents and those at Target who introduced the idea failed to take into account how children interact with new toys? Did everyone really believe that a young child with a shopping cart would walk calmly up and down aisles mimicking their parents?

The outcome — removing the object — is similar to the thinking behind censorship of books, movies, technology and various toys. Instead of teaching children how to use something in a responsible way, many simply prefer to remove the object.

The outcome was probably the right one for Target. There was probably a lawsuit in the making with some child recklessly knocking over a customer or a display. Nonetheless, the outcome is paradigmatic of how we often approach things that we perceive to be “dangerous” to children — and in so doing, the adults abrogate their responsibility to teach.

I tried to imagine another scenario. A parent with a toddler finds kid carts at the local Target. At the outset, the parent engages with the child for a minute about how to walk with the cart, making sure that the child doesn’t bump into anyone. In that same conversation, the parent talks about putting some of her items into the child’s cart and some into her adult cart so that they are sharing the experience of gathering the things on their list. In future visits, they could generate the list together. Older children could practice reading the list or comparing prices, or develop their independence by seeking out an item on their own.

At our school, we provide children with scissors, glue-guns and computers. Large groups of children walk through halls and up and down stairs. Children play with sand and water, they climb structures, they go on field trips to the city. Older children fly to far away cities, they participate in ropes course activities, hike over challenging terrain. Every activity is carefully supervised and planned. But the most important reason that every one of these activities work, is that we spend the time teaching children how to navigate all of these potential dangers.

Barbara Gereboff
is the head of school at Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City.