mothering from the top down: second-hand clothing

I buy almost all of S’s clothes second-hand. In the sunnier months, I love to roam through strangers’ garage sales in the hopes of discovering deals. In the colder climes, I have to make do with kids’ consignment sales held in gyms and ice arenas. The prices aren’t as cheap, but the thrill of the find is still as sweet.

When I return home, I burst through the door and proudly show off the Saturday scores while F pretends to be interested. “I got a whole bag of clothes for FIVE DOLLARS! Plus all of these great books (yes, I realize we don’ t need any more books) – but I LOVED these books when I was little and they were SO CHEAP!”

(Cue F’s signature bemused look at his wife.)

As I wrote earlier this week, theological education has thankfully ruined me to reflect on the world through theological eyes. I can’t help but think about my decisions and actions in light of what they reveal about my belief in God. One day I realized that this rings as true for buying used children’s clothes as it is for using cloth diapers. Beneath the surface of a seemingly simple decision, there lies deep theological meaning.

First, there is the obvious financial stewardship. Buying S’s clothes used saves us lots of money. When I do treat him to an occasional outfit off the sales rack, I’m amazed at the retail prices in the store. While cute new clothes may be tempting, my desire to use our family’s resources wisely helps me to fight the temptation. It’s a good reminder for me of the distinction between needs and wants. It also serves as a spiritual discipline to temper my impulses and not give in to immediate gratification.

Second, buying second-hand clothes is better for the environment. Growing up in the “reduce/reuse/recycle” generation, I know that giving a second home to toys, clothes and books keeps them from needlessly ending up in a landfill while I buy new stuff that eventually meets the same fate. It may seem strange to consider garage sales in light of Catholic social teaching, but they provide another way to demonstrate stewardship and care for God’s creation.

Third – and for me, the most surprisingly theological meaning found in buying used kids’ clothes – this choice connects me to other families in our community. As I cruise through neighborhoods for garage sales on Saturday mornings, I come to know my town and my neighbors better. I love to chat with parents and grandparents who run the sales: they ask about my family; we share stories of how they loved seeing their children in that outfit; I remember their houses the next time I drive by. We have a real, personal exchange, and in this world of online shopping and faceless communication, I believe this is no small thing.

Whenever I pull out a set of used clothes to dress S, I think about the children that wore these shirts and pants before him. I think about the families whose homes I visited to buy the clothes, and I silently send them good thoughts for wherever they find themselves today. Just as I love dressing S in outfits that his cousins used to wear because they connect us to our families, so too, I find a sense of connection with our neighbors through these gently used clothes. They remind me of the mothers and fathers in my community who share this parenting journey. They recall Catholic social teaching’s principle of the call to family, community, and participation. I remember that I am not alone, that we are intertwined in big and small ways as we raise children. This is a deeply theological claim – about human anthropology, about the vocation to parenting, about the God who creates us.

My theological reflections on buying used prompt me to do more. As with every parenting decision, my mothering spirit has ample room to grow here. I can be as tempted by consumption with second-hand goods as with new, and I often have to check myself before I buy: Do I really need this, or am I just snatching up a good deal? When I spend so much time finding things for S, I’m challenged to consider how I show care and concern for other children in our community as well. How can I give more generously to those babies who truly need?

As with cloth diapering, the decision to buy S’s clothes second-hand has had a ripple effect. I find myself asking more probing questions about our family’s habits. How many toys does S really need, and can we give away some of the excess? Why do I need to buy my own clothes or our household items new? What are other ways to live more simply, to release from the clutch of consumption and the need for things? How can we refocus our attention on God, on the relationships in our lives, on the call to serve our neighbor?

Small shirts, small socks, small steps. But the everyday acts of parenting matter. As S grows to learn that his clothes don’t have to come new from the store, I hope that he will see the values that drive my decisions. And I pray that he continues to challenge me to live out that faith more deeply every day.

2 thoughts on “mothering from the top down: second-hand clothing

  1. Claire says:

    My son’s wardrobe is almost entirely hand-me-downs, and I love it. And I totally relate to what you’re saying about connecting with the neighbors and the community during garage sales. We don’t seek out garage sales per se, but we love it in the summer when we’re walking through the neighborhood and we stumble on them. I look around my house and see so many items that came from walks in the neighborhood!

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