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 | , ,


  1. For the record: I think SGF’s Ophelia and Juliet clips are better, but when you’re interacting with a faceless animated tree, you can only do so much… 🙂

    Comment by MaryP | April 14, 2011 | Reply

  2. BWA HA HA!!!!

    Or LMAO as the kids say.

    Have you run across Sassy Gay Friend before? I love his stuff. “What, what, WHAT are you doing???” He’s Canadian, I think, and I KNOW he has a Master’s degree in English. Which is how he ended up as a comedian…..

    Comment by Darcy's Mom | April 14, 2011 | Reply

  3. I haven’t watched your clip yet (no audio at work), but man do I agree about the book! Interestingly, I read it to my son and a group of his friends when they were in Kindergarten. I had forgotten the ending; I just wanted a book where we could talk about the beginning, the middle and the end (lesson plan of the day). The other kids were fine with the book, but my sensitive guy was broken-hearted for the poor tree.

    Aw. Good for him, showing empathy! (And thereby indicating he is highly unlikely to become the sort of child who’s still leeching off his parents in his thirties…) 🙂

    Comment by Sarah | April 14, 2011 | Reply

  4. I’ve always disliked that book, but I thought I was unusual that way. My kids have always given back. If they were the parasites they were in utero, I wouldn’t have made it this far.

    I know people who feel both ways about it. I think the loathers are in the minority, but there’s still a substantial number of us! My kids give back, too, but I think the first time I felt I’d reached that point in an adult way was the time my eldest daughter and I went out for coffee. She was 19 or 20, I think… and she paid for our coffees. A small thing, but symbolic, I felt, that the balance of give and take was shifting to more adult terms.

    Comment by My Kids Mom | April 14, 2011 | Reply


    Yeah, the giving tree is too sad for words. Sort of like that character with fruit growing out of her head in the end of The Neverending Story.

    Maybe everyone needs a sassy gay friend.

    I’ve seen the Neverending Story, but I don’t remember that character. It was a long time ago. (And I recall I didn’t like it much.)

    Sassy Gay Friend? I know I’d sure like one! Failing that, I do have a girlfriend who tells it straight as required. Kindly, but straight. No soft-peddling. (Heh. I want a gay friend who tells it straight. Snort.)

    Comment by IfByYes | April 14, 2011 | Reply

    • She isn’t in the movie, only the book.

      Comment by IfByYes | April 14, 2011 | Reply

  6. Would love to hear your take on “I’ll Love You Forever.” That’s the book that always creeps me out.

    Do you know, I’ve never read it? I’ve read a ton of Munsch books, and love most of them, but I’ve never read that one. Off to the library! Wait… a vague ripple from the depths of my memory… it is the one where the adult man ends up snuggling on his mother’s bed? Now I really need to read it.

    Comment by Anita | April 14, 2011 | Reply

    • Yes, he ends up cuddling his own mother in the end. There’s something sweet about the sentiment, but in one part the mom sneaks into her 20 year old son’s room at night (across town) to look at him sleeping. Awkward!

      Comment by Anita | April 14, 2011 | Reply

      • You know, that one might bother me more than The Giving Tree. Truly creepy.

        Comment by My Kids Mom | April 14, 2011

      • Nah, that never bothered me because it’s very tongue-in-cheek. It’s meant to be funny, because, come on, it’s MUNSCH!

        Even so, I get all weepy over Love You Forever, whereas The Giving Tree just disturbed me.

        Comment by IfByYes | April 15, 2011

      • Well, you could use that argument with Silverstein, too: supposed to be funny, or at least irreverent, because his other stuff all is. Except that if you read what’s written about it on his website, it seems as if it’s mean to be read as a straight-up story of parental love. So I’m not sure that’s a strong enough argument in favour of that interpretation. (Not that I have an interpretation yet, not having read it recently enough to have a clear memory.)

        Comment by MaryP | April 15, 2011

    • That book creeps me the heck out. It’s the idea of her putting a ladder up to his house and climbing in. Gives me the shudders.

      Comment by Dani | April 14, 2011 | Reply

      • The ladder does it to me too. Let him go already!

        Comment by ktjrdn | April 14, 2011

      • I have no idea how that kid ever got a daughter, since his mom dropping in to cuddle him while he’s a sleep would probably be a deal-breaker.

        Comment by Ezra | April 14, 2011

    • I’ve always found Love You Forever creepy, too, until I read Munsch’s reason for writing it. He and his wife had suffered two still-born babies, and the chorus (I’ll love you forever…etc.) was a song that he had in his head for his babies. Eventually he made it into a book as a sort of memorial to them.

      Comment by karyn | April 17, 2011 | Reply

  7. I remember a discussion in college about Rainbow Fish. Yes, he needed to be nice and not as full of himself, but why couldn’t the other fish just accept him for who he was? Why did he have to give them things in order for them to be his friend?

    I have the same feelings about that book by Leo Lionni about the chameleon who just wanted to be like everyone else. Why? Why couldn’t he be pleased with what he is? And why do we give kids books with these messages? (Not that there’s anything to prevent you talking about the book in those terms with the child. Good starting point for an important conversation!)

    Comment by Jessica | April 14, 2011 | Reply

  8. I seem to find a lot of books that I read to my kids where I’m talking after the fact about how the lesson took it too far.
    I’ve actually never read The Giving Tree (not sure how I’ve missed it) but I’m all for giving to my kids and eventually getting as well.

    Comment by Dani | April 14, 2011 | Reply

  9. I just had to review the Giving Tree for a podcast. The book is pretty bad.

    However, if you think that the kid was an orphan, raised entirely be a tree, he turned out alright, I guess.!/episode.php/the-giving-tree-rainbow-fish-and-love-you-forever

    Comment by Ezra | April 14, 2011 | Reply

  10. Oh, I am right there with you about The Giving Tree. I was given it as a Meaningful Gift, and I read it, waiting for the waterworks and the heartfelt sweetness…and…WTF?! I tried very hard to like it, to find a message that wasn’t just serial selfishness and serial co-dependence, but I just couldn’t. (And that’s coming from someone who isn’t too fond of the messages “Never, ever change who you are for others” and “You’re unique, perfect and SPECIAL!”)

    I think EVERY woman needs a Sassy Gay Friend. My best girlfriend, Jon, was my “bridal attendant” (maid of honor, but we didn’t use that term around Grandma, who was already sort of confused that my attendant was a man!) Jon has saved me from myself several times, and knows when to tell me to get OVER myself, and when to break out the ice cream and old movies.

    Comment by Carolie | April 14, 2011 | Reply

  11. That was interesting; the alternate interpretation is how I understood the story, and never thought that there could be other interpretations, until now.

    BTW, totally agree with the others who were creeped out by “I’ll Love You Forever.” A friend said she read it to her child every night so I got a copy … and was glad I got the book on sale.

    Comment by Judy | April 14, 2011 | Reply

  12. I’ve always thought of the alternative interpretation when I read ‘The Giving Tree.’ It’s not one of my favorites, though, and I promptly gave away our gifted copy of ‘I’ll Love You Forever.’ Creepy doesn’t even begin to describe it!

    However, I will never be able to get through ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’ or ‘Guess How Much I Love You’ without being reduced to tears (I’m a crier, you know that).

    Comment by Candace | April 15, 2011 | Reply

    • Oh dear, thank you for bringing up “I’ll Love You Forever.” My mother gave it to my Son when he was about two. Not having heard of it before, I just started reading it to him thinking it was a sweet sentimental story.

      Creepy is right! The last thing I want my kids to think is that I’ll be stalking them and climbing into their bedroom windows to rock them when they’re fully grown. Sheesh.

      Comment by Sheri | April 15, 2011 | Reply

  13. Hate the Giving Tree, although I’d always heard it interpreted as an allegory about God’s love, which I still don’t much like, but is less icky than the allegory for parental love.

    Rainbow Fish bothers me too! He renders himself unspecial to curry favor with mean spirited fish. Hate that book.

    Comment by barneyneuberger | April 15, 2011 | Reply

  14. The alternative interpretation – very interesting! I’m not sure it makes me dislike The Giving Tree much less, but still.

    I wrote a similar post a few months ago – I like “The Missing Piece meets the Big O” better!

    Comment by Lady M | April 16, 2011 | Reply

  15. My new favorite kids book is “Someday” by Allison McGhee. Beautiful story about a daughter growing up and a mother letting go. I agree about the other books, bad parenting philosophies – I’ve also never been a fan of “If You Give A Mouse a Cookie” and those series. Sometimes you have to say no!

    Comment by Angie | April 20, 2011 | Reply

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