Why love sometimes means telling someone they’re wrong.
I have written previously on why I’ve never liked Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, outlining how I was always disturbed by the Boy’s selfishness. Even though more than one teacher presented the story as one about sacrificial love as exemplified by the tree, I focused instead on the Boy. The tree only gives everything she has to him because the Boy keeps asking, keeps taking, never giving even a word of gratitude in return. He takes from her until she is dead, a stump instead of a tree. The Giving Tree is not a children’s story; it is a horror story.
However, as I continue to think about how much I dislike The Giving Tree, it occurs to me that the Boy cannot bear all the blame for his actions alone. The tree, under the guise of sacrificial love, actually enables and encourages his selfishness. She never reprimands him for him for thinking only of himself, never encourages him to reflect on his actions. When he asks, she gives–and she is happy because he is happy.
The tree represents a misguided notion of love, the idea that love is only kindness, where kindness means giving someone everything they want and never making them uncomfortable by telling them they are wrong. It is a love that hides from confrontation and mistakes temporary happiness for true happiness. The boy is never actually satisfied by the tree’s gifts of material wealth–he keeps coming back for more. And yet the tree believes that if she just keeps giving in, the boy will ultimately be content. She gives in until she is dead and he is alone. What kind of happiness is that?
The Giving Tree illustrates the dangers of mistaking love for kindness and correction for meanness. Without someone to guide him and challenge him to become a better person, the Boy never changes. He grows into adulthood and ultimately reaches old age just as selfish as he began. The Giving Tree could have, with true charity, told him “no,” could have explained that we do not take things from others, we do not end the lives of others, just because they have something we want. If she had done so, the Boy might have grown into a Man. But he never does.