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My son loves "The Giving Tree," by Shel Silverstein. And I also remember it being a favorite of mine as a kid.

I vaguely remember it from childhood as having some mildly sad themes, and most people I ask (who haven't read it lately) think of it as something along the lines of "how relationships shift as people grow up or change."

But, reading it as an adult, its lesson seems profoundly disturbing:

It seems to be a book about a (metaphorically) abusive relationship. It's the story of a tree who gives literally everything she has - and is -to a man who takes and takes, giving nothing in return, not even appreciation. Until she is literally nothing but a trunk. And then she's still happy because this unrepentant, selfish boy can get pleasure from sitting on the remaining, broken bits of her.

There's obviously one good lesson in here, that I already embrace and try to highlight:

There's often nothing that can bring more joy than trying to make someone else happy.

But has anyone found a way to explain or position the relationship in a way that doesn't seem to imply:

"... and even if someone never gives back, and never seems to care for you, you should keep on doing what makes them happy, no matter how imbalanced the relationship is?"

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Maybe I was a weird kid, but I always read the story more like you than like the answers given below. I hated the book from when I first encountered it at like 5 or 6 years old. –  Izkata Mar 31 at 14:00

8 Answers 8

up vote 56 down vote accepted

This book works differently for people at different stages of their lives.

The lesson for young children reading this book, I believe, is about unconditional love. Children need to know and trust that their parents will always be there for them, loving them without question, even if they need them their whole lives. You could say to your young child, "I'm like that tree. I will always be here for you, no matter what you need." (I'll Love You Forever by Munsch has a similar theme.)

The lesson for an older child is to become more aware of the gifts given to them. A school age child will begin to see the unfairness inherent in the relationship and also begin to see things from a parent's perspective. With an older child, you could say, "Sometimes when I read this book, I feel like there is something missing in the relationship of the boy and the tree" or "Sometimes when I read this book it makes me happy, and sometimes it makes me sad." Then let your child talk. Gratitude is such an important lesson.

The lesson for parents is to not expect gratitude, but to give freely, because that's what it means to truly love your child. To myself, I would ask, "Are there times when I should be more like the tree with my kids?" It's a call to be your most loving, giving self, not because you are being thanked, but because that's what it means to love. If you are religious, this is akin to being the Buddha or being like Jesus (two examples).

The wonder of this book, though, is that it works subconsciously. You don't actually have to talk about it at all to benefit from what it has to teach.

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Great answer. It's a very complex book. –  Almo Mar 28 at 14:06
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This is a great answer. I think it's important to explicitly point out, though, that there is a difference between looking at this as a parent-child relationship, and looking at this as an interpersonal relationship not involving the parent. I think the OP was concerned about the latter, but this book has more valuable lessons when the former is considered. In this answer, the young children / parent lesson examples focus on parent-child, and the older child lesson example focuses on general relationships. Also, it depends on if you are reading this through the tree or the child's POV. –  Jason C Mar 28 at 23:45
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This genuinely gave me a new perspective on the book. Awesome answer. –  Jaydles Mar 30 at 0:11
    
If you're not religious, Socrates might be a good role model. –  Calvin Aug 26 at 22:03

Well, imbalanced relationships do exist. The trick is to learn from the experience of those who have been there - which is the point of many children books.

"Some people keep on doing what makes others happy, no matter how much it is harmful. Others feel they do not like it. A person is always free to choose whether ending up spoiled and unappreciated is acceptable for him/her."

This both incentives self-determination (which is at the opposite of being at the "weak side" of an unbalanced relationship, and thus actively works against it) and judgement, which is a precious lesson.

Besides that, my personal opinion is that offering unasked advice, not connected to a real-life episode, about how s/he should live his/her life, could be less effective in the long term, given that s/he's learning way more from the parent's character (a random example: the decision to accept openly or to minimize a patently sad story that the parent has come to know) - or be harmful, by teaching that his/her key figures have the right to tell him/her how s/he should live life - but that is besides the scope of question. I'm referring to an unbalanced relationship in a later period of the life; I do not mean to disrespect the OP or anyone in the world that identifies as a "key figure" in any way.

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I think there's an exceptionally healthy way to interpret it if you frame it as there being many ways you can appreciate something and many very different ways you can help. The tree serves very different purposes for the boy depending on each of their life stages.

Certainly the eventual complete harvesting can be viewed problematically, but that doesn't have to be your focus and I'm comfortable with some books portraying characters not making the best possible choices. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, for example - Alexander is kind of a pain and causes a lot of his own problems. Sometimes we may focus with our kiddos on the "everyone has a bad day sometimes" message and gloss over Alexander's misdeeds. Maybe other times - and other developmental stages - we might bring up whether maybe Alexander is causing his own problems.

The Giving Tree has that same opportunity, I think. Maybe kiddo will sometimes be in a position to hear that perhaps the man could have found other materials so other people could keep enjoying those apples. Other times the many ways to help might be the message. While the tree is eventually completely consumed, this is a fable with a sentient tree that views its purpose as to serve mankind in everything. If we can give stories a pass for maybe implying that kids should make out with hopping amphibians I think we have to allow for a tree that can be happy it was cut down.

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Is it more likely to be viewed as an abusive relationship because the character is a boy rather than a girl? If it were a male tree and a girl, I doubt that people would refer to it as abuse (even if maybe they should). They would be more likely to say it was unrequited love or even just that the tree was being a gentleman or protecting the woman. Perhaps the story gives a bad message, but I do think that how people react to it is greatly dependent on the gender of the human in the story.

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I think this book describes the relationship between mother nature and humans, and quite accurately too. We use the earth in exactly that way.

We mine oil, harvest lumber, drive cars, just use, use, use, often without giving the source a second thought. And the earth simply allows us to take.

I do not think it models human-human relationships at all, and if you look at it that way, you will see a very unhealthy/parasitic relationship indeed.

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Not all humans do these things, only our current civilization. (Which unfortunately now very nearly represents our entire species.) Regardless, it's quite inaccurate to ascribe these behaviors to all of humanity. –  beporter Aug 26 at 21:51
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All living things take from nature, only the extent changes. –  Calvin Aug 26 at 22:04
    
@Calvin: More accurately: All living things are a part of nature, so while your statement is true, our culture teaches us we're separate and apart from the rest. That's the "man vs nature" false dichotomy I was pointing out in CHOCOLATOBON's answer. This is a discussion for a whole other Stack Exchange site though... –  beporter Aug 28 at 13:37
    
@beporter Thank you for addressing my misunderstanding in your response. A believe false dichotomy is an excellent way to explain this relationship. –  Calvin Aug 28 at 14:43

I felt the same way as you did on reading it. My children loved 'Where the Sidewalk Ends' and Silverstein's other books, but I was appalled by The Giving Tree. I honestly cannot see how you can teach that the child should just continue to take and disregard the other person completely. This is diametrically opposed to what I tried to teach my children, even when they were very young. Don't we teach them to thank their grandparents for gifts, and encourage them to reciprocate, even as toddlers? I never read it to my children.

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Perhaps it can teach them to give of themselves without restraint. –  Calvin Aug 28 at 14:43

The Giving Tree, like any creative fiction, is open to interpretation. That's the beauty of it. People have interpreted it as you did, and even as satire--not a children's book at all. Some think the tree is God. You see what I mean?

It sounds like your son enjoys it, but you're looking for someone to refute your own adult interpretation of it. The problem with that is--there is no "correct" interpretation. Let your son (and your younger self) enjoy the book, and let it be the subjective, experiental thing it is.

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The lesson in The Giving Tree is not from the tree's point of view. It is from the boy's. The reader will more immediately identify with the boy, after all (if a child, in particular) - and so the lesson is to be aware of people giving to you, and be grateful for it, rather than continually demanding. The boy doesn't feel happy, after all, until the end - which is the closure the poem intends, I feel; he was never happy taking taking taking, until he realized what he was doing and was able to feel grateful rather than wanting more.

Additionally, I don't think it's solely a lesson per se. Children (and adults!) need ways to understand social relationships, and a simplified relationship like this makes that easier. The Giving Tree helps children understand their relationship to their parents - they are the boy, their parents are the tree - and each episode can be seen as exemplifying an interaction where the parents give selflessly for their children's advancement, and are happy. The child, however, is never happy with what they're given, and always wants more.

Similarly, you as a parent will pay for your children to go to school, buy them food, buy them toys, perhaps even give them funding to start a business. You will do that because it makes you happy to see your children happy and successful. Seeing this extremely simplified equivalent in The Giving Tree can help your children understand why you do what you do, and how it makes you feel; and rather than to keep saying "More! More!" to be grateful for what you do and how it helps them.

You might annotate it by asking questions, such as "How do you think the boy might have given back to the tree? What might he have done to help himself feel better? Why do you think he was unhappy after the tree gave him these things?" That would both help your child(ren) understand the lesson better, and perhaps analyze their own feelings in that light as well.

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