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Community Blog Parenting and the Giving Tree

By Hebrew College

BehzadDayanimDid Shel Silverstein get it right? Are we as parents bound by this fundamental compulsion to serve the needs of our children as the veritable “giving tree”? Is this depiction of parenthood meant to reflect an unfortunate reality or portray an ideal?

 This book has been a staple fixture on many bookshelves and for good reason. With its whimsical drawings and poignant representation of a selfless parental figure, many parents find it conveys the unconditional love and sacrifice that accompanies parenthood. Children often enjoy the story as it reassures them of the love their parents feel but may not often be able to express. But is this message a positive one? Are we defined as parents by the selflessness of our behaviors around our children?

 In one of our sessions this year, we read this book aloud to our cadre of PTJL participants at Temple Aliyah in Needham. It evoked many interesting reactions, including a number of emotional ones. Upon reflecting on the book and the nature of the relationship depicted, many thoughts surfaced. Was I this child? Do I want to be this type of parent? Is the relationship a productive one for either the child or parent? Are we empowering our children to be resilient and independent or unconsciously seeking to perpetuate their dependence on us?

 As a father of three daughters, I feel blessed to have been able to spend as much time as I have with them. I will admit that there are times when I have been advised that I sometimes enable behaviors that are not ideal by doing things for them that they could do themselves. At first this offended me as it seemed to challenge my parenting sensibilities. As a son of a physician, I treasured every minute I spent with my father. Perhaps overcompensating for this perceived scarcity, I seek to be available for my children whenever I can, often at the expense of my own personal time and perhaps their independence. I am learning that despite my intentions, my efforts may not be helping my children and could actually be hampering them. Am I subconsciously playing the role of the giving tree and thereby enabling a dependent behavior? Isn’t this anathema to raising confident, independent thinkers who are motivated to make a difference in the world around them? Yes, and no.

 I believe parenthood should ideally be a partnership that involves similar acts of generosity and selflessness from all members. Sure, I can make breakfast for my children and play games with them and watch a favorite show with them. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t contribute to the relationship as well. Part of my responsibility as a parent is to empower my children to become active participants in our family so they can then become active contributors to the community. So, yes I indulge in the occasional burnt toast or overcooked egg, or experimental dessert “surprise”. And I happily lose in our family card games, but not without trying. It is the balance in the relationship that is missing in Silverstein’s work. There is no indication that the little boy has learned from the tree and can now be more giving himself and consequently “happy”. As much as I am always saddened by the tree’s final state as a stump, it is truly the little boy, now an old man, who is to be pitied. He never found the happiness that the tree enjoyed by giving to others. I adore my children and pray that I will be able to see them grow to become responsible and loving parents themselves, that they will spend as much time as they can with their children but also recognize the importance of taking time for themselves and of being a giving partner in their respective relationships.

Whether or not you are a fan, Shel Silverstein portrays an intriguing perspective on the parenting relationship. One of our participants commented that perhaps this story is describing how the nature of parenting changes over time, but that it is no less or more important at each of these stages. It is our responsibility not just to love and care for our children, but to prepare them to be able to love and care for others as well.

I am grateful for being part of PTJL and to my very knowledgeable and participatory cohort from whom I am learning so much.

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