It’s Not All Mary Poppins

The Giving Tree: Love it or Loathe it?

I love Shel Silverstein‘s poems. I own Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, and Falling Up. I can recite any number of his poems for the entertainment of the tots.

But I have never, ever liked The Giving Tree.

Lots of people love it. I loathe it. It creeps me the heck out. It’s a metaphor, of course, for parental love. The tree is the parent, and the child is… the child. At first, the metaphor works just fine. When your child is very young, after all, you as the parent give far more than you get. Those sleepless nights, the exhaustion, the incessant demands… in return for which, in the first few weeks, you don’t even get a smile! There is no way it can be otherwise. A baby is a baby. You give more than you get because they can only be what they are.

And, really… unless you become incapacitated and live with a child who treats you with the love, patience and respect you gave him/her in their infancy as they change your Depends… barring that, you always give more than you get as a parent. On balance, over the course of your life, your parents have probably given you more than you’ll ever give them. Beginning with, ahem, your life. That much is true.

BUT! But at some point, and I would argue this should begin to occur in the late teens to early twenties, the child should start giving back. (Because we’re raising adults, remember?) The balance may never be even, that’s probably not possible, but as the child becomes an adult, there should be some return, some reciprocity of love, respect and giving.

When the child never, ever gives, but only takes? A parent should not keep on giving until it kills them. Good lord. That’s just sick. And yet the book suggests this is a good thing, it’s how it ought to be, it’s laudable, it’s sweet, it’s appropriate, it’s something parents should emulate, even.


Only this week have I stumbled across an alternate interpretation. Maybe my reaction was the point of the book. Maybe, rather than see it as something parents are called to do, we’re supposed to feel revulsion. Maybe we’re supposed to see it as unhealthy, gone too far, extreme. Maybe it’s even supposed to help children begin to grasp the giving that their parents have done.

Maybe. And you can be sure that, should I read this book to children old enough to understand, I’ll be making the point that the boy is being very selfish. It doesn’t seem many people have read it as a cautionary tale, though. They either loooooove this book — such a sweet thing! such parental devotion!, or they loooooathe it — such abuse! such selfishness!

I’ve always fallen into the latter camp. Though I would like to believe the alternative interpretation is the intended one, I really don’t. I think the majority interpretation is the accurate one. And in that case?

This is a co-dependent relationship that SCREAMS for an intervention. And who better to provide it than Sassy Gay Friend?

April 13, 2011 Posted by | controversy, parenting | , , | 25 Comments