The Tricky Politics Of Hand-Me-Down Children’s Clothes

hand-me-downsI was the youngest of seven cousins. I know a little something about hand-me-down clothes. As a child, there were times when I had 10 different pairs of jeans that were all two inches short at the ankles and one inch wide at the waist. (I was the stickiest stick-girl to ever live.) I knew what it was like to receive an aunt’s favorite shirt that I thought was hideous and try to grin politely before “losing it” in my closet. Before I had kids, I thought I knew all about hand-me-downs and the issues that go with them. Then I had a baby. I quickly learned that the politics of gently-used clothes goes far beyond fashion and fit.

Suddenly, I was thrust into the world of who gets clothing from whom, what you save for yourself, and the ever-present question of payment. Let me tell you, it’s all a little overwhelming. I had no preparation when my daughter started outgrowing her newborn clothing approximately three weeks after she came home. Then a friend of a friend was having a girl and I was suddenly forced to talk to an eager soon-to-be mom who thought my infant’s wardrobe was just ripe for the picking.

Well I decided to put together a few of the key things moms should consider before they open themselves up to the world of hand-me-downs. Before you give or accept, think long and hard about the type of commitment you’re making. Of course, there are all types of hand-me-downs, from toys to furniture, but I’m going to focus on clothes because it seems to be the most thriving trade market among new moms. So here are the basics

To give or not to give. It’s the single largest question. Are you ready to say goodbye to your little one’s clothes? Some people immediately throw their out-grown clothes in tubs and send them off to sisters and friends and long-lost relatives who happen to have a child exactly a year younger than their’s. Others want to hang on to those clothes, cherish them. Personally, I save a handful of my favorites from each size and then start the supply chain to a good friend of mine. I could save them for future kids, but I love buying baby clothes and don’t want to deny myself that excitement should we be lucky enough to have another child.

Obviously, if you’re considering having more kids, you’ll probably want to hang on to the majority of your clothes. They might be useful again a couple years from now. There will be detractors who say, “You’ll probably have the opposite sex and they’ll probably be born during an opposite season.” Blah blah blah. Don’t let someone guilt you into gifting away clothes you paid for. My sister waited until she had her second child before she opened the floodgates of gifting. It made sense to hang on to all those adorable and well-preserved little clothes she worked so hard to keep tidy.

There is one warning I want to send out. Once you’ve decided to start donating those clothes to friends and family, it’s hard to stop. People except that every season, they’ll have a load of new-to-them clothes for their child to choose from. Breaking the cycle takes even more politicking than just refusing to begin anything at all.

(Photo: urfin/Shutterstock)

hand-me-downsDoes it need to be returned? I was amazed to find out that my friend was writing my initials in the tag of every article of clothing I gave her for the first year or so. That got increasingly hard as my daughter made me cut out her tags. When I asked my friend why, she said that she assumed she would need to give the clothes back to me once she was done with him. She thought the clothes were a loan, not a gift.

This raised quite the conundrum. What do you do with hand-me-downs once your done? One friend of a friend sold a bunch of other women’s hand-me-downs in a garage sale and made a nice profit for herself. Needless to say, this did not go over well. The offending woman explained to her friends that she didn’t know any other moms to give them to and that two wearers had worn the clothes down. I still don’t think anyone quite forgave her.

You could always return the clothes to their original purchaser. But that person obviously doesn’t have a use for the clothes if they gave them away. Personally, my friend and I decided to pass the clothes along or donate them to charity. It seemed like the appropriate thing to do, continue the chain of helping people out. One thing is for sure, the recipient of those hand-me-downs might want to check what the original owner had in mind before the clothes get worn or re-gifted.

The order of allegiance. Heaven help the woman who has a sister and a friend who both want hand-me-downs. Or a friend and co-worker. Or a cousin and an in-law. There’s just so many choices to make. I’m lucky because my close friend and former boss has a daughter almost exactly one year younger than mine. It just made sense. But I’ve had more than a few friends who got caught in between dueling clothes-hungry moms who both thought they deserved first choice of clothes.

I think the generally acceptable order of priority starts with immediate family, then close friends, then everyone else can fight over it. If there’s too many hands in the cookie jar, I might just throw my hands up in frustration and tell everyone to pick what they want from the local Goodwill.

(Photo: Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock)

The truth is, no mom should feel obligated to share. So no mom should feel entitled to their choice of your outgrown clothes. And any woman who gets angry about that probably doesn’t deserve your adorable little onesies to begin with. If all else fails, I would go with the person who spends the most time telling me how adorable my daughter’s old clothes are. I like “Ohhing” and “Awwing” over those tiny little jumpers as much as possible.

Reciprocity. My sister-in-laws, God love them, have a four-child chain of clothes going on. Because there’s a big, long line of boys, clothes get passed from family to family. If all three of these lovely ladies weren’t the type to take immaculate care of their clothes and add a couple outfits of their own to pile on occasion, the system would never work. I’ve had other friends who aren’t so lucky. I know moms who got nice holiday outfits back covered in stains from messy friends. I know a woman who gave all of her son’s old clothes to her sister-in-law, only to be completely shut out when she had a daughter and hoped to get her older niece’s hand-me-downs.

At that point, I think hand-me-downs cost more in stress than they save financially. It’s sad to see friends or siblings argue over something as silly as a couple pairs of jeans. That might be time to pretend that your child is “really hard on clothes” and that the majority of your stuff was lost to stains and knee holes. But really, if you’re receiving the gift of free clothing, it’s something you should pass on to others.

Payment. It turns out an unauthorized garage sale is just the tip of the hand-me-down Ponzi scheme. I’ve known women who expected free babysitting from people they had gifted clothes to. I know moms who “just assumed” their friend would throw them a couple $20s or buy a couple dinners after they passed off their beloved sleepers. I think it should be safe to say, if it doesn’t come with a price tag, there’s no expectation of payment. What’s more, you pretty much ruin the kind gesture of passing along clothes if you’re expecting to get something out of it. At that point, throw your own darn garage sale.

Hand-me-downs are great. They help plenty of families. But the truth is, you need to know what you’re getting into. You should only share clothes with people you really like and people you feel good about helping. And more than anything, you need to think about it as a kind gesture, not a bargaining tool.

(Photo: Thomas M Perkins/Shutterstock)

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