Every child and adult alike is familiar with Shel Silverstein’s popular book “The Giving Tree.” A favorite of my mother’s, I remember having it read to me time and time again during my childhood. It tells of a great love, though a dangerous kind of love. The tree, a selfless character who wants only to make the boy happy, repeatedly gives away pieces of herself.
Though it starts innocently enough, with fallen leaves and apples, the boy’s demands become greater. The tree, without hesitation, meets his demands. She gives him everything she has, every piece of herself, until she is just a stump. Through all of this, the tree’s goal of making the boy happy never seems to be met – he is always wanting more. It is not until the end that the tree finally find happiness, through the simple joy of connection and time spent with the boy. Strikingly, it seems that the boy never acknowledges how much he has taken from the tree and we are left to wonder if he ever actually finds happiness.
There is no doubt that this book is beautiful in its sadness. It also offers a warning that I think many parents would be wise to heed. In the world of parenting today, there is a message that you should provide everything for your child – you should meet their every need, as well as their every desire. You should protect them and take care of them above all else.
I get it: Love for one’s child is unlike anything else in life. I am fully on board with that. Love your child fully! Shout it from the rooftops. Let them know every day that they are special and beautiful and will be loved by you no matter what. But be careful about how much you give.
As a child counselor and parenting coach, I see the impacts of what I am calling “The Giving Tree Syndrome.” I see parents who are exhausted, who have hit their limit, and who have nothing left to give. There is a catch-22 with this kind of behavior. While you are giving and giving and trying to be the best parent for your child – no, the best parent ever! – you are sacrificing your own needs. Then, there comes a time when your resources as so depleted that you can no longer meet anyone’s needs. And, as it disappointingly turns out, you cannot make your child happy, which may be the hardest parenting lesson to date.
You start to feel like the worst parent ever. You get frustrated easily, your child acts out, and it all starts to feel impossible. You want nothing more than to fix it, or to make all of the distress go away. This is a cycle that is happening over and over again in families across the country because we have some crazy idea that to be a parent we must give up our hobbies, our me-time, our beds, and our energy in order to produce a well-adjusted child.
I do not mean to shame or blame. It is not our fault that we think about parenting in this way. There is an immense…