The Misguided Love of the Giving Tree

Discussion Post

The Giving Tree

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.

32 thoughts on “The Misguided Love of the Giving Tree

  1. jenchaos76 says:

    This happens a lot now when parents dote upon their children and support them through adulthood. They never learn to become self-sustaining people. Instead, they learn to take what they want from others and discard them. I was married to one. He is still, at 47, being supported by his mother. Can’t have a proper life or relationship because his relationship with his mother is too much. She’s in terrible health, has no money because she gives it all to him, can’t afford rent most of the time, so she bothers my 18-year-old daughter for money. It’s terrible.
    My kids, on the other hand, learn at a young age to grow up, go to college WORK FOR EHAT THEY WANT, and be individuals. I’m staying on the fringes as their money m, their emotional mental guidance. However, I said I will not support you as an adult. I know shag happens. I don’t want that for my kids.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I definitely think the relationship in The Giving Tree can be read as a mother-son relationship, where he continues to expect his mother to give him everything, even once he’s old enough to do things for himself. It’s sad you had to experience a similar situation. However, I am sure your children will ultimately appreciate your teaching them independence.

      Liked by 1 person

      • jenchaos76 says:

        I hope so. I’m having a hard time of it though. With my oldest being 18, in college, I still want to mommy her. I know I can’t, it’s not good for independence, but it’s what moms want to do ultimately. I’m have to hold back A LOT.

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  2. Sionna (Books in Her Eyes) says:

    I’ve never really liked this book– the poor tree just wants love, but the boy just takes takes take. I see how the tree is an enabler and should grow thicker bark (heh instead of
    a backbone) yet I do see it as the victim as well. Some people can’t mentally get themselves out of abusive or toxic relationships unless others help them see what is going on and I think that might be part of this book too– a cautionary tale.

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    • Krysta says:

      Some people see the relationship as a parent-son relationship, which would make the tree an enabler since, as the parent, she should tell him “no.” However, I definitely also read the relationship as abusive. It’s perhaps also relevant that trees can’t really fight back. If she says, “No, don’t chop me down” and he takes out an axe, what can she do about it?

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  3. Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

    Beautiful post — and it resonates well with me. I, too, saw the Boy as the focus, not the Tree. It’s been years since I read The Giving Tree; I last read it as a child. Does Silverstein actually refer to the tree as a female? Because, as an adult, this means so much more to me. I feel like I could see it as a child but I wasn’t certain how to put it to words.

    In many ways, this is how the world conditions us to act, based on perceived gender, from a young age. Men ask and women give. It’s a very 40’s mentality of Never Question the Man of the House. Yikes. How are we going to teach our children to be strong, independent, and stand up for themselves if we give them examples like this? It doesn’t matter if I identify with the boy or the tree– either way, it’s a poor example of a relationship.

    I wonder what Silverstein thinks of this book.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Grab the Lapels says:

    This post actually reminds me of my step-cousin, who was a drug addict. Her grandma owns a business and is actually fairly wealthy. The grandma would give everyone in her family a monthly check just because. My step-cousin ended up od’ing because her grandma just kept giving and giving even though the grandma knew she was using it to buy drugs. I think the grandma was hoping that if my step-cousin didn’t have to get a job that my step-cousin would maybe clean up and not use drugs? None of it makes sense.

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    • Krysta says:

      What a sad story! Perhaps sometimes we don’t know how to express our caring so we do it in ways that ultimately do not have the results we want? Perhaps she didn’t want to stop because she wanted her granddaughter to always have an opportunity to make another choice.

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  5. DoingDewey says:

    I’ve always found this story incredibly dark and as an adult, it makes me think about what we expect of women. It really doesn’t seem like a good kid’s book to me!

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  6. Sammie @ The Writerly Way says:

    Man, it’s been such a long time since I read this, but even as a child, I was never a fan of stories like this, where someone (or something, I guess?) gives everything of themselves for someone else with no recognition and nothing in return. It reeks too much of the Biblical stories I was told growing up which always struck me as morally ambiguous and inherently wrong (I’ve always hated The Prodigal Son, for instance). But I digress.

    This is a really thoughtful discussion, though, and also an interesting one to consider what it’s teaching children. Give selflessly seems like a good moral on paper, but is it really? I’d argue, like you, that no, it’s really not. No one deserves to be taken advantage of and used until they have nothing else to give. But as you’ve pointed out, what good is it doing for the boy? None. By the tree’s refusal to set healthy boundaries, he’s become dependent and come to expect all these things, which is an injustice to him, too.

    To me, there’s a lot of interpretations, but I don’t see any of them as particularly positive. Part of that, I think, is the time period in which it was written, in which these things would be normalized. It would be a mother’s job to love her son unconditionally, or a Christian’s job to give of themselves whatever they can, etc. With the passing of time, these are concepts we have taken a more critical eye to and realize that there have to be healthy boundaries on everything. It hearkens back to the conversation about how culturally relevant some “classics” are and how cognizant we should be of that, because a moral deemed culturally appropriate and relevant in 1964 often doesn’t hold the same value in today’s world.

    Very thoughtful discussion!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I think I’ve always understood unconditional love differently from how it’s sometimes presented. I think unconditional love always means seeing another as inherently valuable and wanting the best for them. That doesn’t mean letting them take advantage of people or letting them abuse people. If love is wanting the best for them, that sometimes means helping them become a better person–i.e. telling them they are wrong and need to change.

      But far too often “love” is depicted as someone allowing another person to abuse them while they just smile and take it. And, yes, the person who takes the abuse is usually a woman! This makes it seem like women wanting to protect themselves is somehow wrong because damaging to the man’s self-esteem–he feels bad because he has no one to go home to and make him comfortable and so now his moral degeneracy is her fault. Um, no. He still has free will. He can make better choices. In fact, I would argue he’d more inspired to make better choices if everyone wouldn’t just smile at his bad behavior. Ugh.

      But I definitely think the gender of the tree should be taken into account here. And I am wondering if more teachers will begin to think differently about the narrative in light of the MeToo movement and so forth.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sammie @ The Writerly Way says:

        My view of unconditional love is very much in line with yours. xD And love, unconditional or otherwise, doesn’t mean you’ll always agree with that person’s decisions.

        Ugh, yes, I hate those narratives. The sort of “women, your man wouldn’t cheat if you did X, Y, and Z. Just stop emasculating him.” No, your man wouldn’t cheat if he had an ounce of moral fiber.

        I don’t know, and that’s an interesting question. I’d like to say yes, but my gut is telling me, no, probably not.

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  7. Milliebot says:

    This is an excellent observation! Like you, I always focused on what a selfish ass the boy comes off as. Never did I think about how the tree failed to speak up for herself! I wonder if that’s intentional on Shel’s part? He’s pretty clever, so I’m thinking so.

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    • Krysta says:

      I wish I knew! He apparently tried to be coy about it and say there’s no message, but I do sometimes wonder if he wasn’t cynically laughing at the reception the book received.

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  8. Wendy @ Falconer's Library says:

    Yeah, I think I commented last time you posted about this book how firmly I am in the “hate it” camp. And I SWEAR I once read something where Silverstein said it was definitely not meant to be a positive story. I like your take on the tree’s responsibility in this–we all need to set boundaries, right?

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  9. Captain's Quarters says:

    Right on. I liked this book when it was first read to me. Then I got older and read it again. I hated the mean, selfish boy. And aye, that book was read A LOT by teachers. I like a relationship where there be give and take and ye work together. When I had to read a book to a bunch of little girls, I went with the paperbag princess. Now that is a fantastic children’s book!
    x The Captain

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  10. callista83 says:

    You make a very good point. I don’t care much for the story either. Have you read The Taking Tree? I reviewed it on one of my blogs. You should look it up, it’s funny.

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