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 amount of pressure in the parenting world and an outstanding number of judges (neighbors, family members, other parents, talk show personalities, etc.) who want to tell you how and what you should do. Much of their advice is to do more. Couple that pressure with pure and intense love, and you have parents going to great lengths.
Okay, let’s review. Parenting is hard. There is immense pressure (internal and external) to provide the best life for your child. You are not alone. Great. Now what? Here are a couple of ideas that might help dissuade that Giving Tree voice in your head:
You know how during the airline safety announcement they say that you must put the oxygen mask on yourself before putting it on anyone else? Otherwise, if you lose consciousness due to lack of oxygen, those around you will not receive the help they need to put the mask on either. This is my favorite parenting advice, ever. If your needs are not met, you will not be able to meet your child’s needs. It’s that simple.
Self-care is different for everyone, so find what works best for you. Go to the gym. Meet up with friends. Schedule a date night. Meditate. Garden. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as it is a resource for you. Scheduling these things into your life may feel like extra work at first, but their benefits far outweigh those drawbacks. I promise!
Forgive the obviousness of this metaphor, but I simply cannot resist: It is more sustainable to parent as the full tree than to attempt to parent when all that is left is a stump. What do you need to remain a strong and stable parent?
For those who feel that they have already given all they have, and are in fact parenting from stump-level, do not be discouraged. The good news is that we are humans instead of trees, and we can grow back to be strong and healthy once again. Your course of self-care just needs a little added oomph, whatever that might mean for you. Find a little something extra, and make sure that self-care is part of your regular routine. Schedule it in and don’t skip it! Your road may be a little longer, but it is just as bright and full of potential.
Find your parenting style
There are a hundred new parenting trends every year. Everyone has their own ideas about the best way, and they want to share their newfound knowledge with you. (I am guilty of that, as evidenced by the article.) Parenting according to your values is the most powerful way to parent. It allows you to face challenges with confidence and give your child verbal messages that are congruent with your actions.
In addition, feel free to say no to things. If any of the other ideas I offer don’t fit with your parenting style, chuck ‘em! If your mother-in-law has advice for how to do something better and you’d really rather not, politely decline.
You are the one parenting your child, and you get to do it your way.
Don’t make yourself responsible for your child’s feelings
I said it before and I will say it again: You cannot make your child happy. It’s impossible.
You cannot force feelings upon them. Likewise, when your child is sad, mad, or scared, it is not your responsibility to “fix” them. Their feelings are their own, whether they are positive or negative. All feelings come and go, that is their nature. The best you can do as a parent is to prepare your child for the constant flow of emotions that they are sure to experience for the entire duration of their life.
Instead of trying to rescue them from the negative emotions, you can instill in them reassurance they they can, in fact, handle whatever emotion comes their way. Instead of trying to create happiness, you can bask in it with them when it manifests.
Loosening your grip on your child’s emotional experience will likely be a huge relief in and of itself. It is not your responsibility! Hallelujah!
We began with a story of a tree who gave all of herself to make the boy happy, a goal that she was not able to accomplish. What a different story it would have been had the tree sought and gave in return the one thing she truly wanted: time spent together in connection. Perhaps she would have remained her full and vibrant self, full of life, color, and nourishment. Perhaps the tree could have learned how to love herself as much as she loved the boy, and taught him to do the same by example. Perhaps the boy would not have spent so much time trying to fill a void with things, but instead could have enjoyed the love that was right there in front of him.
May you love and take care of yourself first, for that is the only way to teach your child to do the same.