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Character on aisle nine

Mom and I grabbed a cart on our way from parking lot to grocery store. We passed through the automatic sliding doors together, cooled from the Texas heat by the immediate welcomed whoosh of AC.

A good way through our list, we saw her.

Bent over at the shoulder blades. Hair that shade of pinkish silver denial. Spotted hands on the crossbar of her shopping cart, pushing hard against it. Wrestling her way down the aisle in a losing battle against a wobbling stubborn wheel.

I passed by. But my mother? She stopped.

“Here,” she said,”take mine.”

She began lifting the woman’s groceries from her cart and placing them in ours. One after another. And, well, I couldn’t let me mom do all the work, could I? So there I was, nine years old, transferring a stranger’s toilet paper from one cart to another – and learning…

Compassion. Community. Service.

The woman thanked us again and again, grabbing my mother’s face with both palms in the end and pecking her on the cheek. And the squeaky wheel was ours—our problem then.

Compassion. Community. Service. Sacrifice.

I’m thirty-seven, and I still remember the regret of passing by, the urge to help, the woman’s smile and thanks when I did, the kiss goodbye.

Compassion. Community. Service. Sacrifice. And love? Yes, love.

There’s a lot to be taught from books and teachers in classrooms and houses of worship. But some things are best learned from mom on aisle nine. In the everydayness between errands on a lengthy to-do list. Character is learned right there.

Where sympathy becomes action. When time is made to make someone else’s problem ours. When the weak receive a bit of our strength. When a stranger is treated as we would want to be if the wheel was on the other cart.

What did your mom or dad teach you well by example? What is your example teaching your own children?

Reading Time:

2 minutes





  1. Michele

    Where would I begin? Children catch more than we realize. My Mom babysat children and took time to read to them every day. To broaden their horizons – give them the gift of flight without ever leaving the room. It stayed with me, and I followed her lead.

    xoxo michele

  2. Jenny

    The best advice that I ever received was from my dad when he told me “Public Praise. Private Criticism.” He relayed this information at a very difficult time in my life which I discussed on my blog.
    I am often not a fan of cliches however the old saying that values are caught not taught rings so true after reading your post. Thank you for the reminder.


  3. Liisa R

    My mom befriends everyone she meets — she is naturally social and understanding of just the right thing to say to connect with each person she runs into. She is such a great example to me, am I am an introvert and often in too much of a hurry! I love her willingness to turn every new experience into a connection… her stories about what her hairdresser said the other day and the little old man she talked to in the store crack me up. She told me recently that she misses the small-town feel of where she grew up, so she tries to bring it into the city when she can. Watching her in action makes me want to slow down more and be that friendly, outgoing person at least some of the time! 🙂

  4. Pat

    No matter what our circumstances were (and at times they were abysmal), Mom always did the best with the hand-me-downs and rejects of others, without self-pity, anger or bitterness – traits all too common in today’s society. And she always, always was trying to help others in their struggles and search for meaning in life. Words can only go so far, but the witnessed actions of our youth become the roots from which our lives will branch.

  5. Rebecca

    I needed this tonight. Needed the reminder that our greatest teaching occurs in small ways that we show compassion. I have preschoolers, and I so desire to change them into kind, compassionate, gracious children RIGHT NOW. This is a good reminder to lead by example and to serve in both big and small ways. Shaun always inspires!

  6. Brittnie (A Joy Renewed)

    I posted this same comment on en(courage) today but I think it fits this post also.

    My dad definitely demonstrated a life of love, compassion and character to me during my childhood. My biological mother was very ill with Lupus and actually became ill only 6 months after my parents married. When I came along my dad had already weathered quite a few years of literally being a servant to her. One thing I remember from my childhood is the way he treated my mom. Mo matter how sick she got, how tired he was from a days work in the office plus hours of care taking when he got home, or how frustrated he was that his wife was dying, he ALWAYS modeled for me a “husband/dad of noble character.” I remember thinking as a little kid that someday I wanted to find a dream guy like my dad… someone who will love me no matter what and someone who would stick out the hard roads of life with me when it would be much easier to just walk away. He is an amazing man!

  7. TheActorsWife

    My mom and pops taught me that they’re always waiting for me on the other side of a risk, a failure, a mistake. And though they are happy to celebrate my success, they are just as happy to offer comfort and relief when things go wrong. Knowing that their love is unconditional has given me the strength and the power to explore my interests and, in some cases, live an unconventional life.

  8. Audrey

    My mom taught me that sometimes it’s best to say nothing at all. She almost never has a bad word to say about anyone. She went through a super-painful divorce & had to deal with a crazy ex-husband, but never said one negative word to my brother or me about him.

  9. Erin Messing

    Character and compassion are so important. And our kids learn that from us…..whether we want them to or not. 🙂 My Dad showed me through his interactions with others how important caring for others is. It’s a lesson that has stuck with me and one I hope to pass on to my sweet littles.

  10. Anne @ Modern Mrs Darcy

    I often wonder how best to respond when I find myself in your mom’s situation on aisle 9–encountering strangers who sure could use some help, but I don’t know how to offer it with grace. There aren’t enough examples! Thanks for giving us such a good one.

  11. Cheri Duchrow


  12. Successful Woman's Resource Center

    What a sweet memory, and what a lesson you learned, right there on aisle 9! It is so important to remember that the most important lessons are learned in our everyday living.
    Thank you, Shaun!

  13. Jennie

    It also makes such a difference when you know the person performing the service isn’t getting anything out of it, besides love. She didn’t make a show about it by asking an employee to find another cart or pushing the woman’s cart for her; she simply exchanged carts and let the woman’s problem become her problem instead, completely unlauded by anyone. That’s charity in action.

  14. Jacki

    Wow, what a powerful and wonderful piece. My mom taught me that the most important part of being a parent is to make yourself available to talk and to be a person that your child can always count on for an honest answer.

  15. Sarah G @ JoyontheJourney

    Shaun, your writing always touches me so much. God has certainly given you a gift. I’ve shared with many people your post from the Philippines about how different we might act if we could literally see others around the world when we look out our living room window. If our kids played with theirs. It moved my husband and I to adopt a second compassion child. She has blessed us so much already. Thanks for another thought provoking post!

  16. Mary Ostyn

    I remember as a child accompanying my pastor-dad to the hospital to visit a church member who was ill. On the way to the person’s room, we passed a crib in the hall, in which a very tiny, very upset baby was howling, all alone. My dad turned that baby onto her tummy, and stayed next to her crib patting her back until she quieted down and fell asleep.

    Only then did we continue on.

  17. ro elliott

    The power of our actions as moms…this brings home the truth…preach the gospel…use words if you have to. Our children watch much more than they listen. Oh how we need Jesus.
    This spurs me on…to not despise the small things…

  18. Sabrina

    I recently wrote a post about 5 things I’ve learned from my Grandmother. The one thing that was in regards to character was to laugh on purpose. She would find things to watch, or do, or say, to make her laugh. I am trying to find humor in bad situations, and I look for ways to point out humor to my kids, so they can have laughter every day.

  19. Jennifer

    Lovely…. thank you.

  20. michelle @ this little light

    Wow. What a great post and a great example of love for one’s neighbor. Yay, your mom! I try to teach my son never to pass someone who’s asking for a helping hand: whether you need to drop a few dollars in their cup or give of your time, you’re blessed to be in a position to help.

  21. Nina Stokes

    You would not find a Christmas gift under our tree from our dad. The gift he gave us without ever talking about it was to load the four kids in the car in late December and go to the town grocery. Each of us got a cart and were instructed to fill it up. After the groceries were sacked and packed into the trunk, dad would drive us to the backstreets of our little Southern community. Dad would get out and knock on the door. If no one came, one or two sacks were pulled from the trunk and left on the porch. Eight eyes big as plates were focused on him from the back seat as he continued this routine until all the bags were gone. You would not find a Christmas gift under our tree from our dad but you would find it in our hearts even sixty something years later as I write this.

  22. Liz

    My mom was a tireless advocate for public education. Even though she worked full-time, she was always serving on the PTA, and supporting the teachers and administrators in whatever way she could. My sister and I have both followed in her footsteps- my husband and I both volunteer at the small private school my son attends (board chair, PTO chair, class volunteers, etc. etc…). My sister has worked on several school board elections, helped to start a foundation to supplement the state funding for the public schools in her area, and of course has baked her share of cookies and volunteered in the classroom.

    I was just thinking about ‘leading by example’ yesterday. The house next door is undergoing some serious renovation and one of the contractors knocked on the door asking if he could use our hose to fill his water jug. I said of course, but told him I’d be happy to fill it in the kitchen, and could I put some ice in it for him. My son was there in the kitchen, and while he didn’t say anything I hope he was observing! A little extra kindness is never a bad thing….

  23. Heatherly

    Yes and Amen

  24. Angie Hall

    This touched me so much and warmed my heart. It reminded me of the real-life examples of forgiveness that my parents tried to teach me, especially in regard to racial prejudice. I was a little girl growing up right at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement in this country.

    My family is African American, but often, I would see time and time again my parents example of not being bitter about the way they had been discriminated against in the South. They taught me not to look at race or ethnicity, but to exam the heart. They taught me to be color blind…and for that I will always love them. At at 50, I am reaping the benefits of their model behavior. And almost every day, there is a rainbow of children in my home or in the cul de sac, or finding a way to hug my dog. My kids’ school and my neighborhood resemble the United Nations, and I love it! And I can enjoy this because my parents taught me love, not hate.

  25. Brittany @ My (Un)Intentional Life

    What a wonderful remembrance – thank you for sharing it and for the reminder that our kids are always watching and learning from what we do!

    My parents were always involved behind the scenes in whatever activities my brother and I chose to be a part of growing up…volunteering and even just showing up were valuable lessons in showing care and consideration for others. My folks always welcomed friends and neighbors into our home – they modeled hospitality and kindness not only to the people we know but also welcomed new people into our lives.

    I try to model this same sort of connection to others and involve them with things like making and delivering food to others in need. They were involved this past weekend when neighbors stepped up to help us clean up damage from Hurricane Irene and when the clean up crew (my husband and kids included) moved on to help other neighbors. The kids feel great when they know that they’ve helped someone else, even in little ways. Just yesterday an elderly woman and her adult son stopped me it the book store to tell me how lovely they thought my kids were because the older two had held the doors open for them as they slowly made their way in – the kids practically glowed with pride (until distracted by all those wonderful books, that is).

    This topic of teaching compassion through service is very much on my mind these days as I am thinking about ways to more actively integrate service into our family life. I talked about one way that we do this on my blog today – the kids each sponsor another child their age in the community through the YMCA to buy school supplies for each year. At the ages of 3, 6, and 8 they can be engaged in the process and feel a connection to another child in need.

  26. Laura

    I am so thankful for my own amazing mother who taught me about not sitting on the sidelines. Thanks for the beautiful post today!

  27. Chelsey

    This is a beautiful story…

  28. Emily

    My father died when I was eleven. He was the VP of a division of a large natural gas company when he passed away, but had started as a rookie drafter 20+ years earlier. I remember going with my mother to clean out his office, and the attendant at the gate stopped her as she flashed my father’s badge. “Are you Rick’s wife?” he asked. As she tearfully nodded yes, he told her, “You know, he was the nicest man. Every so often he’d tell me, ‘Hey – let’s go to lunch’ and he’d take me out for a bite.” We did not know this man. He wasn’t a family friend or anyone my father talked about at home. He was simply someone my dad appreciated. What makes me so proud was my father’s generous spirit and total blindness to rank. He saw right past “importance” and straight through to “goodness”. It is one of the most powerful memories I have regarding my father.

  29. Celie

    I can truly say my parents taught much in the few years they where with us by the age of 16 my dad had left this earth by 20 both no longer here on earth to give examples of how to live. The parents of many children taught us how to live satisfied with what we had. In life and death as I recall it can make my head spin this soul man yes in death they each taught us. As we each stood around my dad bed in his last breaths he looked into each of our eyes with such a peace and love I could never forget. And my mom I recall to this day as she allowed her brother to buy what stock she owned coming from a wealthy family. From her hospital bed only a few day before her leaving this earth. My thought as no words were said this is so wrong of her brother

    She sold all for she knew the earthly reaches would only bring turmoil to her eight children left parentless the youngest only 12. We did well as a family, today still a close family it wasn’t earthly riches she desired us to have pleasure in. The relationship of each other and what they had taught, what love was priceless in the eyes of a mother. My thought today are thank you mom for being real and loving us enough to trust God to provide our need. Earthly reaches was not the desire you had for us.

  30. Dionna

    I adore this article, Shaun. Am going to tweet it out now. Such sage advice.

  31. Linda

    My mom just quietly did what needed to be done…even the “yucky stuff”.

  32. Michelle Elaine

    Such a lovely post. Completely vital to teaching our precious children real life skills. Thank you!

  33. Stephanie - Encourage Their Talents

    I always think about how my mother raised us 4 girls on her own with minimal child support from our father. It was often rough, but she made it work.

  34. erica @ expatriababy

    This is simply lovely.

    My daughter is 15 months old, and I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot lately. Words are cheap but actions speak volumes. And so, I’m trying my best to model positive behaviors. Whereas before I would have gotten snarky and sharp when some trivial thing didn’t go my way, I try really hard to take it in stride. To be nice to people. To say please and thank you. To pick up something that a man in a wheel chair dropped.
    More than anything I want my daughter to be nice to others. The only way that’s going to happen is if she sees me doing the same.

  35. Elizabeth

    It is all about manners, Stopping to help the elderly, offering your assistance of someone in need! It’s sad, but it is hard to find people like this these days!


  36. Jessica @FoundtheMarbles

    You are a lucky man. Those are wonderful traits to learn at such a young age. I hope my kids are taking some values away from my parenting too.

  37. Paula Robinson

    That was a great story, and just what I needed to start my day off right. I am always infuriated by the lack of compassion or even acknowledgement around me! People do too much minding their own business these days, and let everyone’s problems just be their own. I can never do that…. I learned that from my mom 🙂

  38. Tracey at Small Bright Pebbles

    What a lovely story about the enormous and life-long impact from a simple, easy gesture. Thank you so much for sharing.

  39. Jessica

    You! With your insistence on making me cry!


  40. Andrew Walker

    Hi there. Thanks for sharing this. It’s a very moving story.

  41. Kate

    The summer that I was 14 ad my younger sister was 12 we went on a vacation to Europe during what turned out to be one of the worst heat waves on record. My mom has always been thrifty so almost every afternoon rather than buy ice cream from a street vendor we would locate one of the grocery stores that were in the basement of many of the other shops and buy a box of ice cream bars for about the same price as a single bar from the street. Of course most of these boxes came with 4 bars and we were only three so every time as we came out of the store we would look around for someone who we thought could use a treat. Sometimes it was a backpacking student, sometimes it was an old gypsy woman begging on the street but the smile on their faces when they recognized what was really a very small random act of kindness was always the same and remain some of my most vivid memories of that trip.

  42. Stephan Hilson

    I think your mother did a good example of compassion and nice gesture for other people too. I guess I have the same experience while shopping for grocery items. But my situation is less complicated since an old lady mistook my cart as her cart. It is a good thing that I found her cart and gave it to her. Then we swapped our carts and she thanked me. Thanks for sharing your interesting article.

  43. Ana

    It’s a beautiful post and took the liberty to translate it in spanish and put it in my blog, hope there is no problem. In Mexico we are in desperate need of good old wisdom.
    Thank you again

  44. katepickle

    totally, absolutely and entirely love this post. It’s inspired me to do more…. to actually DO more.

  45. tahlia - the parenting files

    Lovely. Always be kind and as generous as you can whenever you can. It does not have to be much, but sharing love and generosity is one of the most humbling and rewarding actions one can do. But do it with not expecting much back in return. Do it for your own satisfaction and fulfilment.

  46. Tina

    I’m a little late to the game, but I just had to share what my parents taught me by example.

    They taught me that you have to walk the talk. They taught me that if you are going to have a conviction it is meaningless unless it translates into actions. And that that goes especially for unpopular or difficult convictions.

    My siblings and I all knew that if we had a friend who was in trouble, we should bring them home with us. We all knew that our home was a safe welcoming place, not only for us, but for everyone.

    My mother got a call one day from a new friend who had run away from her husband in middle of the night with her three children to save her life. She was calling to say that she wouldn’t be able to come for their lunch date because she was in another city in her father’s one bedroom apartment. My mother told her that she should bring the kids and live with us until she got everything sorted out with the police and lawyers and found a new house. So, 6 hours later, the master bedroom had been turned into a small apartment for she and three kids, including bunkbeds for the older boys, crib for the baby, bed for the mother, and a comfortable chair for nursing. And the rest of us rearranged the whole house to make everyone as comfortable as possible. And we lived like that, with 3 adults and 9 children, for three months. We continued to support this family for years and us 9 children are now adults and consider ourselves siblings.

    My parents took in several of our friends through the years who found themselves pregnant and thrown out their homes. Several of my friends decided against termination of teen pregnancies simply because my home was known to be an option that they could use if they needed to.

    It wasn’t easy, but we all know in our bones that if you want to talk about compassion and helping those most vulnerable in society, you have to be able to back it up by radical self-sacrifice. And we do. My children are still young, but I plan on making sure that they and their friends know that my home is open to them, whenever and for whatever reason.

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