The Giving Tree Revisited

By December 25, 2023Uncategorized
Giving Tree

The Giving Tree revisited

For those of us that celebrate Christmas, there is a tradition of giving gifts. A children’s book about giving called The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein has been a popular gift over the years. But it has a mixed message about giving.

The story begins with a young boy who enjoys spending time with the tree, climbing its branches, and eating its apples. As the boy grows older, he asks the tree for various things – apples to sell, branches to build a house, and eventually the trunk to make a boat. The tree, out of love for the boy, selflessly gives until it is reduced to a stump. In the end, the boy returns to the tree as an old man, and the tree, now just a stump, offers itself as a place for the old man to sit and rest.

To give or not to give, that is the question

The story explores themes of selflessness, love, and the nature of giving. But it could also be a story about fusion, under and over functioning and immaturity.
From a systems point of view, what is an appropriate level of “giving”? When is doing for other what they could do for themself appropriate? When does overfunctioning become dysfunctional for both parties?

In the story, the time together seems to be one of mutual enjoyment. The boy climbing in branches and spending time with the Tree is an enjoyable time for both.
And taking an apple or two is a natural level of sharing. When someone comes to visit, it’s appropriate to offer them some food. But would it be appropriate for someone to come to your house to take most of your food so they could save themselves money? Giving your kids a “care package” can be appropriate. It depends on what is called “reality needs.”

Reality or anxiety

Reality needs are those situations when someone, based on specific circumstances, really needs some extra help. Somebody getting sick, for example. Or having an unexpected event, like an accident. In these situations, helping is not inappropriate. But like other situations, follow the anxiety. If one is helping out of higher anxiety or feeling sorry for the other person, then this could be less appropriate. Supose your quits their job because “the boss is a jerk” and now is out of money and needs some help. How much do you bail them out. How do you trust the adult child is capable and will get things figured out? The greater the anxiety, the greater the chances that one is “over” helpful in order to soothe their own anxiety. This help could rob the other person of the opportunity to master their own situation.

I believe parents need to provide, protect, prepare, and partner for their children at different stages of their lives. Infants and toddlers need to be provided for. As kids get older, protection is key, as they can provide more for themselves. At an older age, parents need to education and prepare children for being adult. Eventually, children should be self-sufficient and a parent can be a partner or peer in an adult to adult relationship.

But our multi-generation processes set us up with a level of chronic anxiety that can lead to an anxious over envolvement with a child. The parent impedes the child’s mastery of life skills. The parent does for the child what they could do for themselves. They give too much time, money, and life focus to the child, preventing the child from becoming more independent. It sends a message to the child that the parent doesn’t think the child is capable of handling things.

Money doesn’t grow on trees or parents

The Giving Tree has the Tree appear to have unconditional love and selfless giving for the child. This allows the child to be selfish. The child harvests all the apples for their own profit. The child cuts down branches to get free wood to build a house. Eventually, just for pleasure, the child builds a boat from the trunk of the tree, leaving only a stump.

How does this child learn to be self sufficient with the tree just giving and giving? The apples are gone and won’t come back with the branches cut off. And the branches won’t regrow with the trunk cut down. There is no sustainability in the relationship. There is only impingement. And the Tree played an active part in the process.

A healthy relationship doesn’t impinge (unwillingly) on either party, especially unsustainably. Helping a person who has the flu or covid might impinge on another but it is sustainable – it’s a short while and it’s based on reality needs. Housing, feeding, and taking care of someone indefinitely is very different. Repeatedly giving money to someone because you feel sorry for them and don’t know what else they’ll do could be dysfunctional. The specific circumstances need to be considered.

Who’s giving to whom

Unconditional helping can just be an expression of unconditional chronic anxiety. It could be an expression of getting rid of the discomfort one has when someone else is having a hard time. In these situations, the giving is for the giver more than the receiver. Within reason, hard times help a person grow. Hard times happen and each of us needs to learn how to adapt and cope. Unconditional love in the form of rescuing impedes that learning. Giving out of anxiety can be a selfish act.

I think a better ending to the Giving Tree would have the boy and the Tree in a more differentiated relationship. They could always listen to the other without judging them or trying to change the other. They would always enjoy the other’s company. The tree would shelter the boy under its branches if needed sometimes. It would share some apples. The boy could prune a diseased or broken branch when needed. They could share their hopes, dreams, and fears with other. And by sharing their thinking, be a resource to each other.

Give for the right reasons

This time of year lets one examine the emotions that driving their impulse to give. Is giving a thoughtful process of what one can afford and what the other might like. Have you even gotten a gift that the other person liked, so they assumed you would too?  Giving can be driven by guilt, the desire to be appreciated ,or to look good. Or it can be based on principles and thoughtfulness. Being more differentiated in any relationship can be a gift that keeps on giving.

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Comments are welcome:

This post was inspired by this article:  The Giving Tree

Read more about Bowen Theory here