What kind of example are we setting?

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The other day, volunteering at my daughter’s school selling ice cream, I had the opportunity to observe the social behavior of some adorable elementary school-aged children.

At first, there weren’t many children coming up to purchase ice-cream. However, as time went on, a line began to form. During this time, I noticed one boy being something of the “class clown,” joking around at his table with his friends. He too came up for ice-cream, but he didn’t want to wait in line. He made his way to the front and guilefully asked me, “If I give you five dollars will you let me get in the front of the line?”

I smiled and quickly said, “No.”

He then asked, “Well, what if I gave you one hundred dollars, would you let me get in the front of the line?”

I gave him a look, and said, “Of course not.”

Finally, he boldly asked, “If I gave you a million dollars would you let me come to the front of the line?”

To this, I responded with full conviction, “No. Now get to the back of the line please!” At that point, I was a little annoyed and offended that he would even ask. I resumed serving the students, including the boy, and finished out the lunch period uneventfully.

As I was leaving the school, however, the ice cream incident stuck with me, because I knew the boy was not prodding me simply to get some ice cream. Whether or not he was consciously doing so, I knew he wanted to see at what point I was willing to break the rules. What was my point of compromise?

This thought caused me to quickly re-examine the situation. I pondered, what if he actually did have and was willing to give me money in exchange for going to the front of the line? Sure, the five dollars was simple, “No way!” For the hundred, I thought of the other kids and the example it would set for them. Was I willing to compromise a rule for a mere one hundred dollars?

I thought to myself, “No, I would not allow it.” But what about for one million dollars? “Imagine, the impact such money could have on my family,” I considered. I further queried, “Honestly, Bonnie, could you give up a million dollars over a simple line placement of a little boy?”

I played devil’s advocate in my mind and asked myself, “Couldn’t I just explain to the other kids that this is a one-time exception. I could even buy them all ice cream? Wouldn’t that make it OK? No one would be offended and everyone would get what they wanted.”

But it only took a few seconds for me to realize that, in my heart, I knew that such compromise would be wrong. If I accepted the money I would be teaching that child and all the other children that rules do not apply to those who have excess resources and money. I would be showing them that there is no such thing as a conviction, because there is a point at which anyone can be bought.

Now, I know there are some who may read this and think, “Really? How naive!” But I would venture to say that this is part of the problem in the world today. Younger generations are looking to older generations and asking us, “What are your convictions? What will you not compromise on? In short, what is sacred to you?” They are asking us, “What is the moral foundation that I should stand on?”

I think they are asking these questions, not because they wish for us to fail, but because they are desperate for us to live out our stated convictions. They are longing for us to live up to them. Instead of mere rhetoric, they desire to see us show them, for example, what we mean when we say everyone should be treated equally and fairly. They long to see that rules truly do apply to everyone, no matter how much money and access they have. The more we compromise, rationalize, and compartmentalize our convictions for the “million dollars” the more cynical and opportunistic younger generations become.

So, it is all the more important that we not only demonstrate what authentic conviction looks like, but do so in a manner that reveals our love for them. No matter how many times we are challenged, the only way I know how to win the “ice cream challengers of the world” is to treat them with respect, because I care for their souls and well-being more than my own notions of vanity, power, or comfort.

To this day, I don’t know if that kid felt that I cared, but I did. I cared enough about him not to allow him to come to the front of the line and get an ice cream. I cared enough about him and the other kids in line to send him back to the line and wait his turn. In the end, I hope he recognized that that ice cream cone tasted a little bit better because he received it in the right way.

Now this lesson can be extrapolated to many different social and political issues, but I challenge each of us to find something in our own lives, personally, where this would be the case. Where do you know in your heart that you may have compromised? How can we do better, and be better? After all, our children are looking to us as their examples.

[Bonnie B. Willis is co-founder of The Willis Group, LLC, a Learning, Development, and Life Coaching company in Fayetteville.]