There was a corny bumper sticker in the parking lot where I worked more than a decade ago that I still remember. "I brake for random acts of kindness," it read.
While I'm a little too cynical to stick such a sign on my car, I have learned to appreciate random acts of kindness. And I've noticed lately that receiving them or offering them is a great way to teach our kids the true meaning of kindness.
If you do something nice for a total stranger who you'll probably never see again, there is no chance of being paid back by them for your good deeds.
My girls were amazed, as I was, at the random kindness a stranger showed me recently at a Saturday morning yard sale.
A woman was selling about 30 commemorative Gone with the Wind plates, each with a different scene from the movie. They had belonged to her late mother. Knowing I'm a huge fan of the book and movie, my girls were encouraging me to buy one.
Though they were nice, I am not getting into plate collecting, even at bargain prices. But I did enjoy looking at each one and told the woman about the letter I have from Olivia de Havilland, who played Melanie in the movie. I wrote to her when I was 12, and the Oscar-winning actor wrote back.
Then the woman asked me to follow her inside her house where she reached up on a bookshelf and brought down a beautiful ceramic statue of Scarlett in the white, lacy dress she wore to the barbecue at Twelve Oaks. With tears in her eyes, the woman handed it to me and said her mother would be thrilled for me to have it. She hadn't even planned to sell it, and now she was giving it to me.
I ended up with tears in my eyes, too, but my girls' eyes were big as saucers. They were amazed.
When we got in the car, they kept asking why she did that and was I sure I didn't know her. I explained that it was as simple as one person being nice to another just because sometimes it feels good to do something really nice.
A few days later I was on my way to pick them up from school and stopped to get gas. I had somehow left my wallet at home but managed to scrounge up 90 cents in change in the car.
The cashier inside reached in his pocket and put $3 of his own money into the register, saying 90 cents of gas wasn't going to get me very far. Again my girls were so impressed when I told them why we had to stop at the bank and then pay the cashier back on the way home. They looked at him in awe like he was a hero.
I realize it's now my turn to teach my girls how to offer random acts of kindness and not just receive them.
We did go back and give a team of construction workers a box of cookies from the grocery bakery and some Gatorade after they helped push my car off the median that somehow jumped out in front of me in a bank parking lot. That's a start but it was more of a thank you than a true act of kindness for no reason.
My friend Haris Lender always pays for herself and the person behind her when she goes through a toll. A yoga devotee and teacher, she says this is an act of karma yoga or selfless service. She does it to teach her two girls the importance of such kindness.
"The kids always look to see (the other motorists') reactions," Lender told me. "Sometimes they speed up to thank us. It totally flips some people out. They don't even look at us when they pass by because I guess they don't know how to react to somebody doing something nice for them."
You can reach Katherine Snow Smith by e-mail at snowsmithverizon.net; or write Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.