By Giving Less, We Often Give More


Next week is Thanksgiving, and as we all learned as children, and as we teach our own, it’s a time to give thanks for life’s blessings. It’s also a time to give of ourselves to those we love, and to those who are less fortunate.

Giving is good. That sounds like an uncontroversial truism, and in most ways it is incontrovertibly true. But not always. Giving, unrestrained, helps neither the giver nor the taker. It’s a complicated issue, the stuff of philosophical debate for all time. But as is often the case when it comes to complexity, it’s an issue best explored through parable.

In this case, I stumbled anew across a parable found within the pages of a children’s story that seems more relevant than ever at this time of giving and giving thanks.

A Podcast, a Book, and a Coincidence 

I got up early this past Saturday and was in line at the Traverse City ski swap (where you can buy and sell used ski equipment) by 6:30 a.m. Tickets to enter the ski swap were being passed out at 7 a.m., so I had a bit of time to kill. While waiting, I listened to one of my favorite podcasts, Startup, hosted by Alex Blumberg. I chose an episode from season one in which the host, Alex Blumberg, talked about the trials and tribulations of building his startup business.

About halfway through the episode, Blumberg discusses an internal conflict. He fears that he is giving more of himself to his business, than he is to his family. He’s worried that time will pass, too quickly, and his kids will grow up jaded and disillusioned due to his absence and intense focus on work. He’s torn by competing priorities, and weeps as he describes the dilemma that most entrepreneurs face.

What triggered this bout of introspection by Blumberg was reading a favorite book from his childhood, Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, to his young children the night before. Blumberg explained that, in reading the book to his kids, he came to realize that the The Giving Tree’s message is intended for adults, not kids. The lesson he drew: time is finite and before you know it your children will grow up and be independent of you, so you better make the most of it.

It is a great episode, but after picking up some new skis for Heather and I at the ski swap, I didn’t give much thought to it until I got home. It was then, upon walking into the kitchen, that I saw a copy of The Giving Tree sitting on the countertop. I inquired, and Heather told me that our oldest daughter, Madison, had pulled out her copy of the book that morning to read.

In light of this coincidence, I picked up The Giving Tree for the first time in a long time. I did so open to the idea that, as the old saying goes, maybe there’s more to this book than the cover. Heather and I read it together.

What we took away? Well, it’s complicated.

The (Too) Giving Tree? 

In case you haven’t read the book, or haven’t in awhile, as the name suggests, it’s a story about giving. It features a boy and a tree, and the boy comes back to the tree at various stages of his life. The tree gives the boy everything in an effort to make him happy: her branches to swing from when he wants to play, her apples to sell for money, her branches with which to build a home, her trunk to carve a boat when he wants to get away, and a stump to sit on when he is old and weary.

As explained by Elissa Strauss in a piece for The Week, there are two distinct schools of thought about the meaning of The Giving Tree:

For its fans, the book is a parable about the beauty of generosity, and the power of giving to forge connection between two people. For its detractors, the book is an irresponsible tale that glorifies maternal selflessness, even as the maternal figure is destroyed in the process. Despite the tree being reduced to a stump, the book declares in its final lines, “the tree was happy” – a line that has made many mothers wince.

For many years, Heather and I considered The Giving Tree an unabashedly happy tale. The tree selflessly gives to someone she loves, and she is “happy.” But upon our recent reexamination, it’s hard to categorize the book as a happy one. Rather, it’s a cautionary, and in many ways tragic, tale about the dangers inherent in sacrificing our own needs at the expense of someone else’s.

Despite the tree’s selflessness and sacrifice – she gave everything – the boy was never happy.

The essential message of the book, therefore, is that despite our personal desire to give, and how much satisfaction we derive from giving, the recipient of our giving is not always better for it.


The Give and Take of Life

We all want better for our kids than we have for ourselves. This desire is innate and instinctual. The problem is that, like the tree, we can give so much that we have nothing left for ourselves.

We exhaust ourselves shuttling our kids from one activity to another. We hover and leap in at the hint of a skinned knee. We spend all day entertaining and setting up playdates in order to avoid a moment of childhood boredom. We pass out participation trophies to guard against hurt feelings.

The intent of all of this giving is noble. We want our kids to have happy childhoods. But the question is: are we sacrificing our kids’ long-term happiness in the process? Our intensive giving will almost certainly exhaust us, but will it lead to the desired result: raising a mature, well-adjusted, capable adult?

It’s hard to say. This method of parenting is relatively new. We have discussions with contemporaries all the time about how childhood was much different for those of us who are now in our 30’s and 40’s. Not necessarily better, but different. We had more independence to roam and play. Our parents were not there to entertain us – we were expected to entertain ourselves. Cuts and bruises were part of the daily drill. Our feelings got hurt, and we had to get over it.

For today’s parents, there’s pressure to save our kids from the injustices and injuries that were commonplace – simply part of childhood – for us. We think, like “the tree,” that by giving, by saving, by sheltering, we’ll make “the boy” in our own lives happy.

Who knows how it will all work out. Maybe the next generation will be better for it. And maybe all the hard work and effort we’re putting into giving will leave us, as parents, content and happy. But as most of us who are neck deep in the world of adulthood have learned, it’s a hard scrabble place. There’s hardship. There’s disappointment. And things routinely don’t go our way.

And so maybe the tree was right to give so selflessly to the boy for all of those years. Maybe the intrinsic value of giving, which made the tree “happy,” outweighed any enabling negative impact it had on the boy as he grew up. But perhaps the boy would have been better off if, instead of giving her apples, branches, trunk and stump to the boy, the tree had told the boy: “I love you. I want what’s best for you. But what’s best for you is not taking my apples, my branches, my trunk and my stump. You need to set out on your own. You’ll fail, and you’ll fall, but you’ll figure out how to rise up on your own.”

Would the boy have suffered more hardship? Perhaps. But he may have learned important lessons along the way that would have helped to him to overcome, and grow, and succeed, and gain contentment in his own achievement. And as an adult he could have returned home to the tree, brimming with bright apples on a broad canopy of branches, not seeking more, but ready to give back, himself.

In this season of giving and giving thanks, it’s worth considering whether the best gift we can give kids is the lesson that, while we’ll always be there by their sides, sometimes they’ll have to pick themselves up after they fall. Perhaps, by giving our kids less of what they ask for, we’re actually giving them much more.

Revisiting The Giving Tree after all these years was an eye-opening experience for us. There’s a lot of wisdom and insight packed into its pages, and it’s a great read for kids and adults alike. Let us know if you have a different take on what Shel Silverstein was trying to communicate.

LifeJay Harrington