Rational lessons from The Giving Tree

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (published in 1964 by Harper & Row) is a favorite of teachers and librarians.  It has achieved “timeless classic” status despite a horrible overt message.  But Objectivist parents should not avoid the book because of what it seems to portray.   The Giving Tree is ubiquitous and your child is likely to encounter it in school, at a friend’s, or referenced in class or popular culture.  Read it together, talk about it, and discuss what it means.  There are lessons to be had.

The book tells the story of a tree and a boy over the years.  The tree gives and gives of itself until it is a stump, and the boy takes and takes, always wanting more and not content until the end.  The self-destructive altruism of the tree is often cast as noble, and the use of the tree’s parts seen as greedy.  Actually if the tree were a human she’d be best described as a co-dependent mess in an abusive relationship.

When discussing it with your child, if you reinforce that the tree is a tree, and it is proper for a human to use a tree for productive purposes, the story gets a twist.  Children can learn that it is not good to be as dead and dense as the tree.

Use the story of The Giving Tree as a rational teaching moment to share thoughts on productivity, self-destructive sacrifice, clever use of resources, and creating wealth from a simple tree.  Shel Silverstein left lots of room for interpretation.

Here are some points to stimulate discussion:

How did the apple tree get there in the first place? Can you plant a tree too?

Name some of the ways the boy enjoyed the tree.  How do you enjoy a tree?
- Play, swing, climb, fruit, shade, wood, lumber, a place to rest.

Can trees really think and talk and feel and love like humans?

Did the tree give the boy the things he wanted, or did the boy create them through hard work and ingenuity?

What did the clever boy create from the tree?
- Crowns of leaves, money from apples, a house for his family, a boat.

How many people did the boy feed, pay, hire, and house over the years using the tree?

If the tree were a really a human, giving up and cutting off limbs  to make someone else happy, wouldn’t the story be sad, gross and disgusting?

Trees are beautiful and useful, but so are products made from them.  What useful and/or beautiful things can be made from trees?

What is required to make something from a tree?
- Tools, knowledge, planning, creativity, skills, effort.

Altruism and self sacrifice are preached as virtues by many people.  The Giving Tree is a pitch perfect example of what selfless altruism is, and why it leads to sad, pathetic, self destruction.  Even if you home-school your kids on an island in Alaska, The Giving Tree and stories like it will come up.  Embrace them and use them as counter-points to share rational values with your child.

Followup: actor Ryan Gosling was discussing The Giving Tree to NY Magazine regarding his upcoming movie Blue Valentine.  The film alludes to the book via tattoo on his character.  Gosling says about the book, “That book is so fucked up; that story’s the worst. I mean, at the end the tree is a stump and the old guy just sitting on him; he’s just used him to death, and you’re supposed to want to be the tree? Fuck you. You be the tree. I don’t want to be the tree.”

5 comments to Rational lessons from The Giving Tree

  • “Co-dependent mess in an abusive relationship.” Did you really read it like that?

    And you can’t possibly think it’s about an actual tree.

    It’s not a romantic relationship. It’s a parent-child relationship. Parents give of themselves to their children — that’s undeniable and natural, not sick and pathetic. It’s about the cycle of life, how we first take, then we give, and how giving is fulfilling. It’s a sad story, but that’s life.

    The above article is the result of a serious mis-read.

  • Steve

    Um…is this for real? It’s a kids book, what is the problem? I would hate a parent who did not allow me to enjoy this book and instead wanted to stimulate discussion in the ways you suggest here. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry…

  • Michelle

    I think this is a joke. I have never seen such a gross misinterpretation of this book. “If the tree were a really a human, giving up and cutting off limbs…”Come on, this HAS to be a joke. That is not a question a level-headed person poses. I guess its meant to be funny.
    I’m not laughing.

  • LR

    Funny – I came across this post because I heard a joke about Shel Silverstein and remembered a comment that my mother made when I read this book as a child. Right when I finished, she told me she hated that book because she thought it was abusive. She was a traditionalist, socially conservative housewife, who was not in an abusive relationship, and did not define herself in any way as a feminist.

    I googled this book to see if that thought was a “thing;” if she’d picked it up in a Reader’s Digest or something. I think the comments here are interesting in their complete dismissal of the notion. My mother’s senitiment took me by surprise at the time, but is it really so hard to buy?

  • AB

    I’m SO happy to see this. I sent it to my friend because we used to have conversations on what a terrible message this book has. We call it the sorry sap tree!

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