Perhaps there should be a disclosure or warning here: Truly long post about the term second hand and how I see it through my eyes, societies eyes and how I see it being used in terms of the system. This is a truly long post and not one you will easily read in one sitting. I would suggest either bookmarking it or… I have created a sister post of sorts, an umbrella post, one with smaller subheadings with links to the full “meat” of that subheading that then links to the next subheading a bit like Alice’s journey through wonderland… Now that I have outlined that you have options and several ways to read this post… Read in your own way/time.

Second Hand: Is there a point missing?

Sending the wrong message?

There is an inordinate amount of phrases and words that have negative connotations that really should have more positive meanings. These words and phrases have a large impact into how we (ourselves and as a society) view the world around us. Sometimes I have to wonder with a language as vast as ours if we are too often sending the wrong message to the next generation by over using words with double meanings. But what do we do?

Should we avoid using words with bad or double meanings? Do we somehow cleanse these words of their bad connotations? Or do we continue to use these words, teach their double meanings, and educate our children on not letting a negative meaning color their outlook?

I bet you are wondering where all of this is coming from.

In several posts I have brought up how the word “foster” has received bad publicity. I have also mentioned that the term foster parent has been replaced in some states and literature with the term “resource parent”. The reason for the change has to do with re-branding. Changing the label of something with a bad rap but a new image can sometimes help eradicate the negative stigma attached to it.

Here DCS (Department of Child Services) wants to show how it is changing and evolving for the better. They want to reassure the public that they are doing what they can to help families stay together; protection and oversight is being provided; homes (extended family and foster) are being thoroughly vetted; and more. Essentially that this is not the same DCS from our parents generation.  DCS wants a better public image. This also links to the need for quality foster parents.

There are a million reasons to re-brand and DCS isn’t wrong that in some ways they are in need of a re-branding. In this case I am not sure changing a term like foster parent to resource parent is going to have the over-encompassing effect wished for.

There are plenty of other words and terms in our society that have similar negative feelings attached. Words like “used”, “second hand”, and “thrift” have more negative associations than positive.

Lately I have been wondering if we, as a society, are putting way too much positive emphasis on “new” and sending the wrong message about words tied to “used”. It is true that no one wants a used tissue but a used piece of clothing can evoke much the same feeling to a good portion of our society.

So… Why is second hand such a bad thing?

Why is second hand such a bad thing?

Seriously, why is second hand such a bad thing? The double meanings and strong negative connotations associated with the phrase “second hand” and the word “thrift” have had me baffled for a long time. How I was raised taught me to appreciate what I had including second hand items.

As the baby of both my immediate and extended family I always had hand-me-downs. Getting second hand goods didn’t bother me. Sometimes I even really looked forward to receiving the items if I had good memories of my cousins wearing a favorite item. When I got older I even appreciated said hand-me-downs especially when they were not cheap to come by and we’re still in great condition like a leather jacket.

With hand-me-downs there wasn’t often a need to buy me new things. Several of my aunt’s friends passed on high-end dresses and coats from Lord & Taylor. Why would I need my parents to buy me something new?

Most times the only new items I needed were shoes. This helped my parents out at a point where our family hit on hard times because of unexpected illness with my father.

Even still, my parents made sure that if I needed, I could get brand new shoes as well as a brand new outfit up to four times a year. As I went to a school with a uniform, this was all I really needed.

From an early age I learned to have positive associations with hand-me-downs and second hand items. So as preteen, I would ask to go to a thrift store well before I would ask to go to a department store. First I saw thrift stores as a veritable smorgasbord of clothing options from brand new to gently used.

I would get my biggest thrill over vintage items that fit my rather curvy frame. One Halloween I used a vintage pale blue 1930s gown with a gorgeous Irish wool cloak as my backdrop to a silver screen vampire costume.  I have a love affair with fabric, costumes, shoes… I grew up at the heels of generations of women who sewed.

Now ask the question I am sure you have been wondering about.

How have others treated me and my second hand items?

How have others treated me and my second hand items?

As a child no one said anything really. No one other than those who passed along items knew that my ridiculously expensive clothes were in reality hand-me-downs.

It was a slightly different story as I got older. No, the kids didn’t really know that some of my clothes were hand-me-downs. What they knew was that I didn’t have the same saddle shoes the rest of the girls wore. They assumed I couldn’t afford it. Why? Well, because my parents didn’t dress as lavishly as theirs did.

At first no I didn’t get picked on for my second hand items but rather I wore sensible loafers while others wore the black and white saddle shoes. I received some heckling because the shoes were not as pretty as theirs. It was true. Also true was that my shoes cost less. The reason I had them though was more medical than cost. I have low ankles so shoes with firm high backs caused my ankles to bleed. My sensible loafers had soft leather backs.

The preteen me did get picked on for her second-hand items but I don’t believe it was ever solely about what I wore. Once you get heckled or picked on you are always an “easy target”.

Moving from middle school up to high school I had a whole new world open up to me. Suddenly I was going to a school where only a few people actually knew me. The world was changing (vintage was so in!) and there was a good variety of students. Kids wore brand new things, used things, old things, and things they made themselves. It didn’t really matter what I wore, although at the time it still felt a little bit like it did.

All freshmen feel like they have something to prove. They are little fish in a bigger pond and they are searching for their identity. Once I felt like I knew who I was, no it didn’t matter one bit what I really wore. In fact most times I found it thrilling that no one else really would be wearing the same thing. Even when my best friend and I chose to wear the same dress the same day we often had different accessories.

Going through college, post-college and full on grown-up, I still have kept my thrifty ways. My wardrobe has a mix of new, used, and vintage. Generally no one knows what items I have that are from thrift or consignment stores. I became so good at “thrifting” that I could tell someone where they could buy high end items (like manolo blahniks) for next to nothing. In fact I made a business and career of it for some time as an ebay seller and a costume coordinator for a theatre outside of Washington DC.

My move to Tennessee only put a small crimp on my thrifting. Thrift stores down here are just as big of a deal as they are up in Washington DC. It is sometimes just a bit harder to find high end high heels in good condition without hitting up a consignment store.

For the past twenty years of my life thrifting and consignment shopping has been so popular that my friends and I try to see who can find the best deal. We have even “snatched” up items at places while the other person is “thinking it over”. No hard feelings ever. Some of the thrill is in finding a great item for a great price. We even see who can find the best “brand new” item at a thrift store or even the lowest priced “new” item at a high end store. For us it is all about saving money while looking good. It doesn’t matter if it really is new or gently used.

It is true that most of my friends understand the value of a dollar; that money comes and goes; kids cost LOTS of money; if it looks good- wear it!; and life is too short to make a big deal over how expensive something is.

Not only is saving a “buck” a good thing but vintage trendy. It is also trendy to take old items and give them new life: Up-cycling. People are more aware and concerned over their carbon foot print then ever.

So why is there still a stigma surrounding “thrifting” and consignment shopping?

So why is there still a stigma surrounding “thrifting” and consignment shopping?

Why is it there still a bigger emphasis placed on buying something new over just wearing something you like regardless of where it came from?

I can see an argument being made that it is all about consumerism and how industry/marketing has implanted in our (society) heads an emphasis on new vs. second hand. Yes, I can clearly see that argument. In working with kids I see how the more money a family has the larger the emphasis is on having the new trendy thing. How it doesn’t really matter your income, you want to have a new thing but money is what dictates what you have. The monetarily poor get left out.

Here is where I get a bit left behind in this… a second hand item like a DaVinci painting has worth but a second hand shirt is considered “used” in the sense that a tissue has been used and therefore dirty and less. How does that make any sense?

I grew up having things but my family not having lots of disposable income. For all intensive purposes we were monetarily poor. That didn’t mean I went without all of the time. Overall, I was a happy kid. Society (or consumerism, take your pick) is saying that because my family was “poor” that I shouldn’t have been happy because I didn’t have “stuff” but I did have stuff and my life felt full and rich regardless of our income. My parents tried not to place a strong value on what we didn’t have but chose to focus on what we did have. They have even said I taught them so much about thrifting and making do because I saw color in places they felt were bleak.

Great, I changed my family’s outlook and view. I have had a hand in changing the outlook some friends have had. All of that is great but it doesn’t change society as a whole or the view it has on second hand items, unless it’s a highly prized/sought after item.

Something needs to change.

Why? Because I still see today kids placing value on having brand new Nike sneakers over being happy that they have a pair of shoes that fits well and they like irregardless of the swoosh on the shoe. Most of the time the kids don’t know why they want those Nikes except for peer pressure or other outside influences.  Worse, I see this misplacement of value being forced on kids not just by their parents or the media but even by schools and the branches of the government. Shouldn’t we (society) be doing more to change how “second hand” is viewed?

So here is where the stigma with “second hand” really bothers me. The value of the term “second hand” within a flawed system: foster care.

The value of second hand in a flawed system

So here is where the stigma with “second hand” really bothers me. The foster care system (in general) places a high value/standard on new over second hand. DCS has its reasons and plenty of people with good intentions buy into those reasons and don’t see their hand in making changes as having anything but a positive outlook. However life is rarely so clear cut.

When going through foster training classes (a multiple week process called PATH) we learn a variety of things from medical administration and CPR to a variety of scenarios we may find ourselves in. One big thing is learning the difference between being poor and neglect.

Our instructor made a big deal over the fact that someone can be poor, have a clean home and nice things BUT that doesn’t mean they are dirty, or scum of the earth. Why would she need to say that? Well because our society thinks that poor means you are “trailer trash” or scum of the earth. That poor people are lazy and get what they deserve. Even in the definition of “poor” one of the meanings states “low quality”. There is a difference in being poor (lacking funding) and being of low quality.

So Instead of focusing how the rich get richer through the sweat of the masses, the bulk of society focuses on the multiple meanings of the word poor and false statements attached to being poor. Thus devalues the people who are in many ways forming the infrastructure of our society.

With a view like that it is no wonder that our instructor put such a high value on making sure that our class, and others taking foster training, understand that being poor does not equal neglect. That even the rich can be neglectful. How a lot of cases of neglect come not from the truly poor but the upper lower class through to the middle class.

This builds a case over understanding what neglect really means. It puts an emphasis on how poor people can have a good clean home and never once have a situation that would need the involvement of DCS.

In foster training, one week we learned the difference between being poor and those who are neglectful. Another week we learned about some of the conditions children are found in. We also learned that when many children are taken from their dwelling that any “stuff” that is brought with them is often bagged up in garbage bags. The reason could be a duffle bag or suitcase was unavailable. Perhaps any available bags at the residence were unfit (dirty, drug covered, or bug infested).

This juxtaposition of learning what poor truly means, what being neglectful is, and the mental image of an infested residence where not even one clean bag could be found is all rather overwhelming. It is easy to see how it can all get muddled in someone’s head and evoke strong negative feelings.

The idea of a child leaving their home with only a garbage bag filled with an odd mix of belongings always pulls at people’s heart strings. It is no wonder then that a large number of organizations have popped up over the past five years with the sole purpose of making sure no child enters the system with their belongings in a garbage bags.

Most of these organizations are grass root based. Some have been formed by teenagers who want to help make lives better for others.  A few of these organizations don’t just provide a bag for belongings (like a duffle bag) they also make sure a stuffed animal or blanket is included. Some even go out of their way to make sure new clothing is available to CPS workers for children coming into care. All wonderful intentions especially when trying to make a scared child feel more like themselves.

So where is my argument? What is my problem? How does “second hand” even fit in here?

The fostering classes provide scenarios that seem grim and often are. DCS paints pictures of abuse and neglect. Non-profits see a need to provide children entering the system with new items. If foster parents or birth parents provide clothing or shoes that are not brand new, often they are questioned, criticized and made to feel less. Sometimes they are called out as being neglectful as they are not providing a “new” item. Why?

These children deserve the best; they need to feel valued; and used items make these children feel less than.  The stigma surrounding the second hand item is that it is used and therefore dirty or less. One never wants a child in the system to feel less.

I won’t argue that children entering the system deserve the same opportunities as all other children in our society. What I will argue is that having something new is what will change their lives or that somehow receiving something second hand will in effect make them feel second hand. Getting a new pair of shoes or a shirt does often brighten the day of anyone, especially someone who has had grimy, filthy clothes and shoes filled with holes. But I will argue that a nice second hand outfit that appeals to that person will have the exact same effect.  How do I know? Lots of personal experience most of it first-hand.

Beyond my own experiences as a child receiving second-hand items I see how my own nieces and nephews react. They are always ecstatic. They love consignment shops and thrift stores as much as they love Target.

I have seen children in very poor conditions be offered a bag filled with washed second hand items in great condition and love them as equally as they love the brand new items. They never know the difference between the second hand items and the new ones because I remove price tags off of everything before I give them. To them everything is bright and new.  The key is to get them things that are tailored to their likes. As long as all the second hand items are in great condition then no one should ever really care.

The take-away is that one does not have to equate second hand or used with something dirty or shameful. As long as we (the providers) make sure that the items are clean, spot/tear free, in-style, and tailored to their likes, well there is no “big deal” between something being second hand or new. It is all based on our (society) outlook.

Am I wrong for purchasing second hand items for children in foster care? If I am purchasing stained, torn or items ready to fall apart, then yes. However I am not. All second hand items I buy are in decent to very good condition. Most times I let the kids pick out their own clothes from the thrift store.  Am I only purchasing second hand items for my foster kids? No. So on two accounts I am not doing anything wrong. Everyone in my house has second hand items. I am not singling out any foster child in my home and making them feel any less than myself. Also I am not only buying second hand items. There is always a mixture of new and gently used that way everyone has a good choice of clothing.

I do want to take a moment and point out that DCS as a whole (at least in our area) fundamentally has nothing wrong with second hand items. Our DCS has even supported a locally formed organization that provides an “open closet” with both new and used items available to foster parents. The goal of DCS is for every child to have items that are weather appropriate, clean, free of stains and tears. Another standard is that everyone in the household be treated the same. So if a birth child wears second hand items then yes second hand items are fine. However if no one in your house wears second hand items then it is wrong to force a foster child to wear second hand items.

All that said, there are plenty of case-workers who look down on, and question, foster parents and birth families for providing second hand items to children in care. Faced with those case-workers, and well meaning volunteers or organizations who only believe in using “new” items, it can be hard to be a family who believes in using second hand items.

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