Faith Gong: A Mother’s Day reflection on ‘The Giving Tree’

“You know that book, The Giving Tree?” my daughter asked the other day. We were on our way home from her two-day class camping trip  – a 9th grade tradition at her school. 

“Yes….” I replied, warily. I do know The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein’s bestselling 1964 picture book about a boy and the tree who loves him. We’d been given the book early on in our life as a young family, but I’d gradually become so disturbed at the type of relationship The Giving Tree modeled for my children that I’d expelled it from our bookshelves. 

“Lil read it to us on the trip,” my daughter continued, “and I was crying so hard. It’s so sad; it’s like a metaphor for everything.” 

“What touched you most about the book?” I asked.

“Well, at the end, the boy and the tree both have nothing left to give, but they’re just together….”

“That’s true,” I acknowledged. “What do you think that’s a metaphor for?”

“A lot of things. Parenthood.”

Parenthood?!?” I yelped. “Do you plan to strip me of everything and then sit on my dead body?”

“Well you wrote once about how you should die slowly for the people you love!” she countered. 

Not for the first time, I had mixed feelings about intelligent children who read my columns.

For those who haven’t encountered The Giving Tree or read it recently: The story begins with an apple tree who loves a little boy. The boy visits her daily to gather her leaves, climb her trunk, swing in her branches, sleep in her shade, play hide-and-seek, and eat her apples. 

This first section concludes: “And the boy loved the tree…very much. And the tree was happy.” 

But things change quickly. On the next page, we see the boy as a sulky adolescent leaning against the tree’s trunk. The boy is getting older, “[a}nd the tree was often alone.” 

Then one day the boy shows up as a young adult. He’s too big to play anymore. He tells the tree: “’I want to buy things and have fun. I want some money. Can you give me some money?’”

The tree explains that she doesn’t have money, but she has apples. “’Take my apples, Boy, and sell them in the city. Then you will have money and you will be happy.’”

So the boy takes away all her apples, “[a}nd the tree was happy.”

Thus begins a heartbreaking pattern. 

After a long absence, the boy shows up as a balding, paunchy middle-aged man. Apparently he’s too busy running his apple empire to play: Now he wants a wife and children, so he needs a house. The tree offers her branches, which the boys cuts off and carries away to build a house. And…you guessed it: ”[T]he tree was happy.”

Another long absence follows, and the boy arrives as an old man holding a suitcase. He describes himself to the tree as “old and sad.” The implication is that the wife-and-children plan didn’t work out. (Maybe they got tired of living in a house made of apple branches?) Now he just wants to get far away, so he needs a boat. 

The tree offers him her trunk to make a boat. I’m not sure that applewood is optimal for boatbuilding, but old man cuts down her trunk and carries it off, leaving the tree nothing but a stump. 

Here’s where the pattern changes: “And the tree was happy…but not really.” 

At this point, I always start to feel hopeful. Does the tree realize that she’s been used? 

Apparently not. It seems that she’s sad because the boy has sailed away; when the boy returns as an ancient, bent old man with teeth too weak to eat apples, too tired for anything except to sit and rest, the tree is thrilled that, as an old stump, she can still offer him a place to sit and rest. The book ends with the old geezer sitting on the tree’s stump. And, once again, “…the tree was happy.” 

My daughter was not wrong in her assessment that the book is moving because in the end both boy and tree have nothing left to give but are together. I simply disagree that this should be held up to my children as a model of sacrificial love. 

It turns out that I’m not alone: A quick internet search on The Giving Tree reveals that the book is steeped in controversy. According to Wikipedia, it’s been described as “one of the most divisive books in children’s literature.” To my knowledge, Shel Silverstein has not commented publicly on his interpretation or the motives behind his book. 

My daughter was also not wrong in remembering that I’d once written about sacrificing for the people you love: She even located the exact column, written in 2017 and titled, “When You Feel Like Your Family is Killing You.” In it, I reflect upon the sense that all the sleepless nights, answering questions, and physical and emotional exertions of parenting young children are slowly killing me, but conclude that sacrificial love is still the best kind of love. 

I am finding that the great truths can rarely be narrowed down to fit on a greeting card, but so often my children take what I say as if I’m offering pithy quotes. 

I had this conversation with my daughter on the eve of Mother’s Day, so as a Mother’s Day gift to my children I would like to clarify my thoughts on the topics of parenthood and sacrificial love.

I absolutely believe that we must love sacrificially, to be willing to put others’ needs before our own. I find, oddly, that I thrive the most when I am the least selfish; when I am loving my friends, husband, children, and community. And nowhere am I called upon to do this more consistently than in parenting.

But sacrificial love isn’t a simple concept. Here are two crucial qualifications:

  • Sacrificial love doesn’t mean complete denial of your own needs. Obviously, if I spend all my time serving other people instead of eating or sleeping, I will very quickly be of no use to anybody at all. There are some situations in which it may be very clear that you’re being called upon to become a lifeless stump: Leaping in front of a moving car to save your child comes to mind, or fighting against great injustices. But in general, taking reasonable care of your own basic needs — for food, rest, occasional solitude, joy and beauty — will only enable you to love others better. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” assumes that you love yourself.  
  • Sacrificial love isn’t really love if it’s actually bad for the person on the receiving end. Herein lies my real beef with The Giving Tree: It’s not just that the tree’s form of giving was bad for the tree, it was also bad for the boy. By allowing the boy to take selfishly everything that she had to give, by encouraging him to believe that money, love, and travel would ultimately make him happy, the tree enabled that boy to become a sad, tired, broken, lonely old man. (Notice that only the tree was happy throughout the story.) Love doesn’t mean always saying “yes;” sometimes the most loving word we can utter is “no.”

In my own version of The Giving Tree, when the boy first arrives and wants money, I’d have the tree say, “Well, money won’t make you happy, but you do need some money to live. So here’s what I suggest: Take seeds from my windfall apples, study gardening, and plant an orchard. Save up for a down-payment on a house built of something other than apple branches and commit yourself to bringing the same love and joy to other people that I’ve brought to you. I’ll still be here, growing, putting out apples every fall, whenever you need to sit in my shade. Come visit anytime.”

I’m grateful for all those — mothers or not — who offer unconditional love so that others might thrive. 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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