The Giving Tree

My husband and I both have very fond memories of reading the book The Giving Tree as children. I always thought it was a wonderful book and it was one of the first children’s books that we put on our wish list. We were very excited to receive a beautiful hard cover copy of it as a gift for our baby. So, a few nights ago I decided to open it up and read it aloud to my stomach. Ever since then I have sort of been thinking about it off and on. Something about it really bothered me when I read it the other night and it continued to bother me throughout the last few days. Today thoughts started to form around this vague bothered feeling and I want to share them here. I’m guessing that many of you have read this book as it is a very popular children’s story, but if you haven’t here is a short recap of the story from Amazon:

"In Shel Silverstein's popular tale of few words and simple line drawings, a tree starts out as a leafy playground, shade provider, and apple bearer for a rambunctious little boy. Making the boy happy makes the tree happy, but with time it becomes more challenging for the generous tree to meet his needs. When he asks for money, she suggests that he sell her apples. When he asks for a house, she offers her branches for lumber. When the boy is old, too old and sad to play in the tree, he asks the tree for a boat. She suggests that he cut her down to a stump so he can craft a boat out of her trunk. He unthinkingly does it. At this point in the story, the double-page spread shows a pathetic solitary stump, poignantly cut down to the heart the boy once carved into the tree as a child that said "M.E. + T." "And then the tree was happy... but not really." When there's nothing left of her, the boy returns again as an old man, needing a quiet place to sit and rest. The stump offers up her services, and he sits on it. "And the tree was happy."

Ok, so I have always thought that this story was a great example of selflessness and generous giving, but as I read it again as an adult I found a whole different story within it and it was honestly unsettling.

Let’s talk about the boy first. The little boy, who grows into an old man through the course of the story, is definitely not someone I want my son to be like. He’s selfish and an incessant consumer. He takes, and takes and takes. He knows the tree loves him and he uses that love to his own advantage to get what he wants. He has no thought for the destructive force of his actions. I do not want my son to manipulate others love for him in the way this boy did. I don’t want him to selfishly walk all over people the way this little boy did. I don’t want him to endlessly consume from others and from the natural resources around him the way this little boy did with no thought of consequences. The boy is not a character I want my son to emulate.

So, how about the tree? When I was younger I felt that the tree was the real hero in the story, the character that should be emulated. I thought the tree’s selfless giving was beautiful and fulfilling, but now I see a different story and a different side of things. It’s true the tree is selfless and giving, generous and loving and these are all characteristics that I want my son to have and strive after. But, as I read the story this time, I felt uncomfortable with the tree’s giving. It seemed unhealthy. The relationship that the tree has with the boy seems abusive and the tree seems to be victimized in the story. The tree allows herself to be walked all over and taken advantage of time and time again. As I read it I felt uncomfortable with the way that the tree enabled and sustained the little boys consumption and selfishness. I do want my son to be giving, I do want him to pour himself out on behalf of others and love others generously, but I do not want my son to become as weak as this tree and allow himself to be abused and taken advantage of like that. As I look more closely at this story I don’t think that the tree is really worthy of emulating either.

I think the story actually shows us how messed up two good things can become in a relationship. Here’s what I mean… Giving selflessly to another is incredibly beautiful and valuable. And I personally also believe that allowing ourselves to accept and receive and take from another what they freely offer us is also incredibly beautiful and valuable. Relationships need and should have both these things. We should be able to give freely and receive freely in relationships. But, I think there needs to be balance. The problem comes when the balance is lost and it becomes all giving or all taking – it’s then that the relationship can become unhealthy like that of the little boy and the tree. At least that’s what I think at this stage in my life as I read this story. Anyone else have any other thoughts on this classic children’s book??

Rejoicing in the journey - Bethany