We were in the side yard smiling in the sunshine and watching my growing toddler explore the world with the excitement of the very young. My friend gestured towards my front porch, where she had left a box of clothing her three-year-old had already outgrown. “I don’t even remember what’s in there, to be honest, I packed it up a few months ago…” she said, apologetically. “Hopefully none of it is already too small for him. If it is, you know, just pass it along.” In the time since I became a parent, the near-constant trading of clothing has become a constant feature of my life. I have learned that when my kid outgrows all of his clothes suddenly (and doesn’t it always happen suddenly?) I can easily go to my friends with older children and ask, “Okay, who’s got stuff for us?” Usually someone does. Usually people are thrilled to get these boxes and bags of old clothes out of their homes. As my own child outgrows his wardrobe, I place the too-small items in an old diaper box until it’s full and I go hunting for someone to take it off my hands. I never have to hunt very far.
I turned to my friend. “If it doesn’t fit, there’s a neighbor baby just down there,” I said, pointing two houses down, while still keeping half an eye on my kid on his wobbly legs. “He’s only five months younger and takes most of our hand-me-downs.” This was the point in which my friend beamed at me. Grinning ear to ear she said, “Oh, that’s so wonderful, then you get to see them again!” I suddenly knew that there’s way more to hand-me-down clothing than I previously imagined. My own childhood experience with “handed down” clothing was less than idyllic. The secondhand stuff always came from the kids of my mom's friend, or else a distant cousin, and it was always woefully out of style. To make matters worse, it was usually picked over by one or two other children before landing at me, so the good stuff was already gone. And while my mother would remind me not to be snobbish about wearing clothing I didn’t love, she also had her own issues around the implications of a secondhand wardrobe. Because she hadn’t had brand new clothing growing up, she made a big point of making sure my sister and I often did.
No wonder I was predisposed to dislike the cast-offs of family friends! To add insult to injury, these articles of clothing always arrived in a big, ugly, black garbage bag. In my little kid brain, the symbolism was stark and clear. I could never imagine myself having an affinity for hand-me-downs. My own child, now two years old, owns a handful of things that were purchased new. One or two of them were bought by his ma and myself, but far more of them were purchased by grandparents. He also has some things found at thrift stores. But primarily – overwhelmingly – his wardrobe swells with secondhand clothing. Who knows how he will feel about it. Maybe when he’s seven years old he will turn his nose up at the whole operation, just like I did. But for now, he loves rifling through a box of fresh hand-me-downs just as much as I do. And I do love it, I really really do. From the parental side, there are many things to love. First, there’s the cost factor. We’re a low-income family, and even the cheapest clothes in stores still cost money. But the box of summer stuff from the kid down the street never ever does. Kids grow fast, so having clothing needs removed from our budget is extremely helpful. It’s also far less wasteful, since children do go through clothing so quickly.
Especially babies: They wear them for such a short period of time that used clothing isn’t worn out until it graces the fifth or sixth kid. If you don’t want to support huge corporations, and you don’t have the money for the really fancy indie kid’s clothes, second hand is a great option. Then there’s the fact that — and this might sound shallow — my friends have impeccable taste. They dress their kids in really cute outfits, and that helps me do the same. Once, a friend in New York sent me a bunch of messages about my kid’s (and let’s be honest, my own) taste in toddler outfits, before sending us a hand-picked box of stuff she thought would be the best for my particular child. It has gotten to the point where my wife and I have caught ourselves checking out an older kid’s fly outfit and saying “I wonder if we could get that in a year or so?” But there’s something else, something more than efficiency or aesthetics, that makes me really love the hand-me-downs. I think it is the thing my friend and I were talking about in the yard that day, the thing that makes the transfer of clothing from kid to kid an actual joy. That thing is this: In all likelihood, my family will only ever have this one child in it. That means that every single baby or kid-related item has only a short time with us. Every stupid t-shirt that I love to see him in, every cute pair of socks – they all have to go. But when they go to the baby down the street, they don’t disappear. Smaller kids breathe new life into what were once our favorite things, and their parents mix and match them in ways I never would have thought to do. When I see the neighbor baby in a onesie that my own baby used to wear, I sigh and say, “I remember when he could still fit in that.” It isn’t just me. As our children grow and change, my neighborhood and my larger community keeps right on swapping kids’ clothes. All the parents stand outside while the kids play and say wistfully, “Oh, I remember that one, it used to be my daughter’s! But it looks so cute on your kid too!” Or, “Isn’t that sweater great? I got it from an old friend who moved to California, her sister made it, can you believe that?” The constant shuffling of outfits is a constant tangible, physical reminder of the fact that my kid isn’t alone in the world. He’s part of a community of children. That is something worth celebrating. After my friend climbed back in her car and drove away that day, I scooped up my kid and took him inside. In the living room, I took a box cutter to the box and we spent a fun half hour going “oooh” and “aaah” over the new items inside. Most of it fit great, and he wore it all winter. But, he’s hit another growth spurt since that sunny day. Nowadays you can find most of the clothing from that particular box, still in my neighborhood, on a couple of other toddlers. My friend was right: It is really wonderful to get to see them again.