A: Hi guys. Welcome back to the podcast. I'm Amanda.
L: I'm Laura.
K: And I'm Kendra.
A: And today we are going to discuss a beloved book called “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein. Most of you know the story, the Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, but just in case you don't- it seems that almost every parent is given a copy of this book to read along with your children. It's beloved by many, but if you go back and read it- it is quite problematic. And so, this recently came up in a physician Facebook group, and so we thought that we should probably talk about why this book maybe isn't the best example of a fantastic relationship.
So the tree loves the little boy so much that it gives him all she has to give. But let's talk about that. When the boy is little, they spend a ton of time together. He climbs her trees, he eats her apples. They love each other. But as it happens, the little boy grows up. And eventually he returns to the tree after a very long absence and tells it that he doesn't wanna climb her branches anymore. He is too old for that, but what he really needs is some money to buy some stuff. And so she tells him she doesn't have money, but she does- well, she would be happy to give him all of her apples to sell. So he does that, and he leaves for another long period of time. He grows older and returns after a long absence, this time not wanting to necessarily play or hang out, but he needs a house. And so would she be able to give him a house. And so she says, well, I can't give you a house, but what I can do is give you all of my branches. And he takes them, and he leaves. And he shows up later as a grown man. This time, he's sad, and he just wants to make a boat to sail away. So the tree gives him her trunk, leaving only a stump at the end. At the end of the book, the old man returns, and she's kind of sad and is like, I don't have anything else to give. And he says, well, I just need a spot to sit on. And so she happily straightens up, gives him a spot to sit, and the book says that she is happy. And the story ends usually as I sob.
So what is the problem with this story? Let's talk about it. I did a little, little research online and we're gonna talk about three different um, citations.
L: Oh my goodness.
A: Laura, let's start with the first. Yeah.
L: So many problems. So a New York Times article by Adam and Allison Sweet Grant.
And are they both organizational psychologists? Is that or Adam is the organizational psychologist? Is that right?.
A: I actually don't know about Allison, but Adam Grant is kind of popular on Instagram. He is an organizational psychologist, and just, a lot of the stuff that he posts is like, everyone shares it. And it's just like, oh my gosh, this is so good. But it turns out they wrote a while ago an article in the New York Times specifically addressing this book.
L: Yeah. So this New York Times article, which we’ll link in the show notes, it's called, “We Need to Talk About The Giving Tree.” They say “to some readers, the tree's act of sacrifice seems noble, like the unconditional love a parent gives to a child. But if you assume the story’s about generosity, it's easy to learn the wrong lessons: that it's okay for a child to take selfishly, and that adults should give until it hurts and keep giving until they literally have nothing left to offer. That's a recipe for trouble.” So a few points:
Self-sacrifice is not sustainable and it's not healthy either. We can, we can give, but we need to give from a place of abundance. We need to give from a cup that we have created that's actually overflowing and that we have excess to give. So when we sacrifice our own well being for others, we find that it leads to burnout. And actually our productivity declines, and we find that we're less effective in many areas of our lives.So, it's really not helping anyone.
Those who care about others and neglect themselves are more likely to become anxious and depressed and are less effective. So in this article, they cite additional articles showing examples of selfless teachers and students, where the teachers who are giving and giving and giving, giving all this extra time actually are less effective teachers and their students are doing worse in school.
“Generosity is not about sacrificing yourself for others. It's about helping others without harming yourself. It's about giving in ways that nurtures more givers…It’s prioritizing your needs along with theirs.” So we're modeling giving in a healthy way so that other people become, not takers, but also become givers, and see that giving can be a part of a healthy lifestyle, where we're not sacrificing our own wellbeing.
They cite a study of the recipients of Canada's highest honor for giving. They scored higher than average on their concern for others, but also for themselves. So they were concerned for others, but also concerned for themselves. So instead of others draining their energy, they're able to, in this way, maintain their motivation. So if we want to be able to make a true difference in the world, we can't just be this one tree that allows itself to get chopped down. We have to be a tree that produces, produces fruit and produces new trees. That is the way to make lasting change in the world.
A: Yeah. So the next article we're gonna talk about is by Jennifer Ziegler. She wrote an article in Curiata called, “Why I Hate The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.” So she ends up arguing that the book encourages selfishness, narcissism, and codependency. And some of her points are that the boy rarely says hello, never asks how the tree is doing, and never says thank you, despite the tree ultimately giving everything and having a stump left. And that just, you know, it's just something that she noticed. The boy also, because she gives, without teaching any sort of boundaries, he never learns empathy. He’s almost narcissistic in his pursuit of personal gratification without any regard for the feelings of others, specifically the tree. And then the tree seems to have some issues with co-dependency. Merriam-Webster defines codependency as “a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person manifests low self-esteem and a strong desire for approval that has an unhealthy attachment to another, often controlling or manipulative person.” Now, when I read the book, I don't necessarily think, I mean, it's a boy. I don't necessarily think that he's doing this on purpose, but yet there aren't any boundaries. Like he's also not shown what a loving boundary is. And so the behavior does come off, you know, selfish in the, in the tree, despite giving everything and only having a stump left. In the story, the tree is sorry that she doesn't have anything more to give than her stump.
So Jennifer, this cracks me up. At the end of the article, she says, “No, thank you. If my kids are going to learn about dysfunctional relationships, it's going to be the old-fashioned way by watching inappropriate movies and television shows, and by the example set by their dad and me.”
K: Yeah. That's hilarious. I think I would have to agree with that a little bit. Oh no, we're not gonna read a children's book. Oh no. We're gonna watch it- Reality TV. Right inside our home. So yeah, there was another blog by Christopher Rosen titled “Why I Can't Stand The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.” And basically what he says is that “it doesn't seem that either of them has really benefited from the relationship. The tree is effectively dead with nothing left to give. And the boy has taken everything and seemingly learned nothing from the tree’s sacrifice.” And I think we can all feel, you know, we don't give til we, like, physically die, but I think anyone listening to this podcast can think of times when we have felt like we have given everything we can. And we are so tired or just so exhausted. Emotionally, physically, whatever, and we just have nothing left to give. I know I've been there several times, and then it doesn't even seem like- even when I reflect back on those experiences that there was even feelings of like, oh, I'm so glad I did that . You know, like, like I don't have that feeling. I don't remember feeling that like, wow, that was so worth it.
L: No. So, because it's oftentimes work related.
K: Exactly. Exactly. And, you know, he also says strong relationships are built on mutual respect, which I think is a huge- I'm not sure the word. But I feel like that is getting lost in society today. And some of what creates frustration in our line of work is because, you know… We leave a room and the patient has either not gotten off their cell phone, not addressed us as doctor, you know, whatever. Or maybe just not even looked up to even acknowledge we're in the room. And part of what is that moral injury is that mutual respect. You go in giving that patient the benefit of the doubt in talking to them. And I'm here to serve you and what is your problem? How, let me help fix you. And then it's not reciprocated.
He puts it like this. Generosity and self-sacrifice are not the same thing. Too much self-sacrifice creates a parasitic relationship that is detrimental to both. So I mean, those are some strong words, but honestly it paints quite a vivid picture in your mind. You can see where, you know, most of the time, even being generous- if it's from a self-sacrificing or a scarcity mindset, it is not going to be anything that builds, you know, that positivity bias or those thoughts that we can use to move forward and really relish that experience.
He goes on to say if the tree had set limits, the boy might have learned some self restraint, and true partnership. The tree could have provided fruit and shelter for the boy, his children, and generations to come. So there's almost like that, through this experience, I'm going to propagate generosity because I, myself, am going to set boundaries in an attempt to show an example of what generosity looks like, but also setting healthy boundaries. So then, not only is the relationship built on healthy boundaries, but moving forward, that boy understands and knows, because it's been modeled, what a healthy boundary is. He propagates that to his next generation, then the next generation and the next generation. So, it’s seemingly like, you know, not just talking about the dysfunctional relationship, but also there is an element that- yes, we have a duty to serve. That is our job, but it doesn't need to come at the cost of our soul.
L: Yeah. You know, this tree is a she, but we know. And, and this stereotype of giving til you're dead. It's often attributed to women, but we see it in our male colleagues as well. And we know that you're out there, that you're experiencing the same situation, probably, especially if you're working in an emergency department or elsewhere in medicine. But this is not a model for motherhood. It's not a model that we want to have as doctors. We can extrapolate this situation to the way we work in medicine. He wasn't, and you know, Shel Silverstein, which I did not know. He wasn't, he was, like, actually not a good guy.
A: Yeah. It wasn't so much a judgment about him as a person. I mean, everybody gets to do their own path. But we just assume he is this child-loving, like, you know, sitting on a rock with tons of children around him just listening to his funny stories.
A: He didn't particularly enjoy children, just by the way. His first job out of the military was writing cartoons for Playboy, which I'm not saying is good or bad, but like. Then for fun, he just started writing children's books because he thought children's books were too soft. So we, we impart all of this like tenderhearted meaning on this story. And it is quite possible that that was never the intention to begin with, and maybe it was a commentary. He refused to talk a lot about this. All he ever said was that it is a relationship between someone who gives and someone who takes, and that's it. And he didn't wanna talk about it any further. So the fact that so many of us think that this is the most fantastic children's book ever- that's projecting. Like, it's quite possible that that was never the intention to begin with. We don't know. He never said really. But if you look at his own personal life, it wasn't this sweet, sweet family guy.
A: He, yeah, I mean, not to get into it, but you can look up. You can look it up yourself if you want to know more about his particular family life. So the reason why we are doing this podcast is because this book specifically was referenced in one of our big medical groups on Facebook. And it was basically saying maybe, you know, happiness, self-preservation isn't the goal. Maybe, maybe the duty is the ultimate goal of this. And it's just to reiterate what Laura said. I think doctors in general are incredibly altruistic people that are very prone to giving more than probably they should give. I think a lot of us are giving trees, and so I just wanted to bring this up that there is another way. And that, when we continue to give unconditionally- who we're giving to doesn't learn healthy boundaries. They don't learn healthy relationships. And our relationships- be it at work, be it with other people- aren't built on mutual respect in that way.
We have to start making healthy boundaries for ourselves. Show somebody what that looks like. And it can be ultimately so much better when we start doing that, when we start saying, “I love you so much, and no.” That can look absolutely beautiful. But you, we have to start learning what that is and practicing it.
K: Yeah. I love the part about when we were talking about Topher Payne. He actually rewrote the ending and kind of made it appear that there was some healthy boundaries set, and everyone's happy in the end. And there's, you know, a thriving end to the story.
But I also think about- we've talked about Brene Brown's “Atlas of the Heart,” and we've talked about the different feelings that she delves into. But I love her, one of her research findings was discovering this concept of near enemies. And so some of the near enemies that we have or some of the feelings we feel are almost, just as dangerous typically. You know, you can identify an enemy from a million miles away. Like something that is clearly going against what you believe in, stand for, whatever, whatever. She talks about the near enemy of empathy is actually sympathy. Because in sympathy you're like, and we joke ‘cause I'm from Oklahoma. We like to say, bless your heart. You know. So that's like sympathy, like, bless your heart. But it's saying, it kind of sucks that you're going through this, but I really don't- I'm not even gonna, like, bring myself to actually understand what you're going through. Whereas empathy is like crawling down in the hole with the person that's in the dark place, sitting with him and being like, this is really affecting you. This must be really bad, and I'm just here for you, whatever. So it's like one of those things where like, everyone's like, oh yeah, I'm sympathetic to your cause. But it's a little hierarchy that is like, oh, so sorry. I'm up here. You're there.
So this near enemy kind of thing. This book reminds me of that because it's like, oh, it seems like it should be like, no problem. But honestly this tree is giving, giving, giving, and not teaching empathy and not teaching generosity and not teaching. But it's like all the near enemies of these feelings.
And so it's been interesting, the conversation today, but also the conversation that came up in that Facebook thread and just the way you know, the different chairs for which we sit in is the perspective that we can give to the situation. And so bringing light to it is- wow, ehen we sit to think about exactly what is going on here. You know, it's when we sit to reflect on, like, every day at our job, every shift we have, every experience we have with consultants. In order to give from abundancy, you have to have already formed or recognized not only how much you can give, but how much am I having my own back? And where is the boundaries that I need to set in order to move forward here? And you know, that's the work. That's the work that we have to do, but it can be done. And it's so worth it. So worth it.
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