Teaching Children About Uncomfortable Truths (a Defense of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree)

Z with giving treeShel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree is a polarizing book.

To some people, it’s “heartbreaking, moving and truly inspiring,” while others have called it a “horrible book” and “total misguidance wrapped in Marshmallow” (yes, that’s a quote).*

This classic children’s book features a sweet little boy who turns into a selfish adult. He exploits the love of a generous tree, who sacrifices her fruit, branches, and, ultimately, her trunk to satisfy the short-sighted desires of her friend. By the end, she is reduced to a lonely stump.

My daughters have three copies of this book: one in English, one in Spanish, and one in Latin.**

They love it, and have asked to read it several times (in all three languages), even though the story saddens them.

As one of my six-year-old twins said, after we had finished reading one of the versions yesterday, “The boy took so much and never even said ‘thank you.’ He might say ‘thank you’ to people, but not to trees. That poor tree!” This comes from a little girl who, as I’ve mentioned on this blog before, laments the bare branches of the magnolia in our front yard, even though it will bloom again this spring.

However, the generous tree at the heart of Silverstein’s book will never bloom again. What transpires between the man and the tree is a cautionary tale that does not glorify selfishness. The tree gains happiness from her generosity, but, when the boy has taken too much without reciprocity, she isn’t really happy. This story shows selfishness as a heartbreaking, destructive force that exploits the good will of others.

This book teaches young children a harsh truth about human nature in an age-appropriate, gentle way. Human beings are selfish creatures who have exploited the planet in unconscionable ways. The sooner children learn this truth — and see it for what it is — the better off we will all be.

Not everyone sees it this way, though.

As the recent one-star “misguided Marshmallow” review on Amazon.com said:

This book is a total misguidance wrapped in Marshmallow. This is not a story about giving. It is a story about abuse, one sided relationship and lack of gratitude. People believe it is about unconditional love, but it is NOT. Unconditional love is a state of mind, not being someone’s doormat and feeling gratitude for him allowing you to be his doormat. You can love someone, yet firmly say “NO”.

I did read the giving tree to my children when they were young, but only as a basis to raising a debate and discussion on the basic need for self esteem and self worth and how at no price ever, should any one of them allow themselves to become someone’s doormat! (emphasis added)

Is the giving tree a “doormat,” as the critic quoted above claims?

It is true that the tree sacrifices itself to keep an undeserving person she loves happy. Sometimes, I find myself wishing the tree would say “No” to each of the man’s increasingly exploitative demands.  Or, wishing that, after the man has reduced the tree to a stump, the tree is clearly dead when the man returns. The first alternative would teach us about the importance of standing up for ourselves, while the second would teach us about the consequences of destructive behavior.

However, I know that the lessons we would gain from these alternate endings would come at the loss of others in the book: that even grown-ups make mistakes, that love is unconditional, and that generosity is a powerful tool for happiness. The tree teaches us that even when we believe we have nothing left to give, there is always companionship and love, which are the most important gifts.

Like the author of the one-star “misguided Marshmallow” review, I use this book as an educational tool. It has been the basis of many interesting conversations with my daughters. Unlike that reviewer, though, I believe that the fact that this book raises issues for debate and discussion makes it a five-star book that deserves a place in my children’s library and in their hearts.

*These are quotes from Amazon.com reviews.

**Their Aunty Na (who is a Latin teacher) gave my twins The Giving Tree and El Árbol Generoso for their birthday, and Arbor Alma for Christmas. When reading the Latin translation, I’m doing my best to use the classical pronunciation, but certain diphthongs really get me. I didn’t take Latin in school, but it’s never too late to learn it!

Three Giving Trees

About A.M.B.

I am an attorney, the mother of three, and the author of Two Lovely Berries (by A. M. Blair), a novel exploring the struggle for individuality between identical twins. Check out my "About Me" page for more information.
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26 Responses to Teaching Children About Uncomfortable Truths (a Defense of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree)

  1. I’ve never read this book and haven’t heard too much about it, to be honest. While Shel Silverstein was prominent in my childhood, I never discovered The Giving Tree. While I don’t know much about it, I have to say – aren’t we supposed to teach children truth? Truth that is easy and hard to accept? I can’t help but be somewhat baffled by the marshmallow commenter; this is a precautionary tale for children, much like many tales. While it sounds somewhat heartbreaking, it’s also important for children to understand what can happen to someone or something when we take, take, take and never give or show gratitude.

    Very thought-provoking post, as always!

    • A.M.B. says:

      Hi Caitlin–Happy New Year! Yes, I think we are supposed to teach children the truth, as long as it’s done in an age appropriate way.
      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I’m on the anti side, though these comments are provocative. I tend to think of the book as Silverstein’s revenge on his Jewish mother. Kidding but not. The book (and this discussion!) seem so gendered to me! Thanks for the re-framing.

    • gerkinkerfluffle says:

      The tree is female and the boy is male, but beyond that I don’t see much that’s gendered about the story. I don’t think the gender selection draws upon or encourages stereotyping one way or another, and you could easily switch their genders, or make their genders the same, and the lessons would remain the same. I assume Silverstein made the protagonist male because he’s male, and the tree female either because nature is typically personified as female or because it represents his mother or both, but in the end the message isn’t really gender-specific.

      I suppose the difference in our interpretations might arise from your “revenge” view. Seems to me the boy is far more at fault than the tree. If the story is meant as a metaphor for Silverstein and his mother, then I think it’s much more an apology than an insult.

    • A.M.B. says:

      Hi Elizabeth! Thanks for chiming in on the anti side. I don’t know what Silverstein’s motive was when he wrote the book, but he does seem to have been a very complicated human being. I’m not sure what you find gendered about this discussion. Silverstein made the tree female, but I don’t think it would change the story much if it had been a male tree. I just interpret the story differently.
      Thanks for sharing your perspective!

      • Elizabeth says:

        Hi you guys. Sorry it took me so long to clarify what I meant! For one thing, I do not in any way think that Silverstein was actually thinking about his or anyone’s mother. I meant that as a joke, based on the fact that the tree behaves as an extreme version of a maternal stereotype: “mothers” give and give and give and expect nothing in return. The “Jewish” stereotypical version of this figure would then make the son feel super guilty all the time. There are reasons for this stereotype, and it was a cheap jibe that I made mostly at my own expense. (Like, the boy’s “mother” gives and gives and gives, and now she’s a stump–that’s the “revenge” part.) I’m in no way endorsing this as a valid way to think about any mothers, Jewish or otherwise. Silverstein was clearly writing about the environment. The character is a tree.

        But I don’t think it’s an accident that the tree is female. And that the boy is a boy and not a girl. For one, nature has been coded as female in many cultures and stories. Also, women are (stereotypically) nurturing and stay at home. Like the tree. Men go into the public. Like the boy, with his house etc. One of feminism’s (and I’m talking “first” wave, suffragettes, not just the 70s) greatest accomplishments is to bring women and femininity into the public sphere, out of the home. For these and other reasons, I think the story wouldn’t work if the tree were a “he.”

        As for this discussion and gender, well, I was thinking specifically about the commenter who uses the story to talk to her kids about not being a doormat. Or the commenters who use it to talk about emotional abuse. While there are women abusers and male victims, and it’s very bad, the vast majority of abusive relationships are male abusers of women. I just took it for granted that these facts were part of this discussion.

  3. Reblogged this on Something to Ponder About and commented:
    Is this something that should be read to children? Is it about abuse, or unconditional love, or environmentalism. Does it even matter? Something to ponder about

  4. This is a fantastic book and I think the real moral or reasoning behind the story is up to the reader. I took it to be both an environmental lesson and a relationship lesson. It can be whichever or whatever you want it to be. It is up to the individual reader to make it what they want , and what is relevant for their circumstances at that time. As for shielding children from the harsher realitiies of life, one has to consider the age of the child, and the emotional maturity of each one and then decide how they approach discussions or in fact, whether they even read them the story. I think it is an excellent book, albeit quite a sad allegory.

    • A.M.B. says:

      Yes, I think the “real moral behind the story is up to the reader.” It’s a rich story with multiple interpretations. Thanks for the comment and also for reblogging the post!

  5. Luanne says:

    I used to teach children’s literature to college students. They often wanted to talk about this book although it wasn’t part of the curriculum. It’s very sentimental, which is something that the best literature tries to avoid, but there is no doubt that it has a profound effect on its readers. But something always bothered me about the book, and I think that this reviewer has a good point. When we read the book we weep for all the helpless victims of the world, but when it comes to human beings, we need to learn how to say no and end cycles of abuse. We’re not trees, and the book may read as an allegory about human relationships, although it is more about environmentalism. (There is something wrong with the comment box on my screen so I can’t see what I’m writing, and it might not make sense!)

    • A.M.B. says:

      A children’s literature course sounds very interesting. I’d be curious to know which books were on the syllabus. I agree that The Giving Tree is a book that stays with readers–it has certainly stayed with me. I also agree that we need to learn to say no and to stop cycles of abuse (the type of relationship in this book is more emotionally abusive and exploitative–an important lesson for people who see abuse as only physical in form). Still, I see the primary issue to be selfishness and exploitation of our natural resources. The fact that it’s open to multiple interpretations–the basis of thoughtful discussions–is what makes it a great book.

  6. I know adults like that and they could benefit from reading this children’s book. I think the tree is magnanimous.

  7. Roy McCarthy says:

    Is there not a danger that some children won’t see the moral in the story? Will a few think that the tree is just stupid? It’s a valuable (and seemingly moving) life lesson but only if children are able to see – or are taught – the meaning in it.
    Thank you AMB for all your excellent and thought-provoking posts during 2013 – long may they continue.

    • A.M.B. says:

      Hi Roy! There is definitely a danger that a child won’t see the moral in the story, but that’s where the parent comes in. We always discuss the books they read. Hopefully, by the time they are reading fully on their own, they’ll have enough of a background to be able to assess the content they are reading–or know when to come to me or their dad for guidance.

      Thanks for the comment! Happy New Year!

  8. Cynthia says:

    Thanks for this great post. I responded to it on my blog http://thethingsyoucanread.blogspot.com/. In my response, I linked to your post. Again, thanks for the insight!

    Cynthia
    The Things You Can Read

  9. This books sounds great, even for young kids. Thought-provoking and worthy of conversation.

    (But hearing the description makes me want to cry, and maybe that’s a good thing too.)

    • A.M.B. says:

      It makes me want to cry, too! What I love about this book is that it is open to multiple interpretations. There’s so much in it to discuss.
      I hope you had a nice weekend. Happy New Year!

  10. I think you get the point of the book much better than the reviewer..I don’t think we should not share the harder realities of life with our children…in fact we do them disservice when we don’t because they come across challenged unprepared..they are going to have friends who do that to them, take without giving and it’s important for them to recognize that friendship is a two way street! Great review!

  11. hvanmil says:

    I’m the same as the other commenter – can’t finish the book without crying, although I do love it. As a fellow collector of children’s books in different languages (we have French, Dutch, Spanish, Hawaiian and Welsh so far) I would love to know where the Latin book was found. So cool!!

    • A.M.B. says:

      It makes me want to cry, too. I’m not sure where my sister got the Latin version (she gave it to my twins as a gift), but it is available on Amazon. I love collecting books in different languages. Thanks for the comment!

  12. Liene says:

    I love this book, but I’m saving reading it to the boys until I can finish it without ending in sobs…

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