For more than a decade, in evening courses and workshops on children�s literature and in my undergraduate seminar, I have read and discussed with others a popular children�s book of the 1960s, Shel Silverstein�s The Giving Tree, published in 1963. Parents and grandparents in my evening courses have opined that The Giving Tree is emblematic of all that went wrong with the �me generation.� They have argued, vociferously at times, that this book is a quintessentially sixties statement of lenient and permissive parenthood that we now know failed.
Perhaps more surprisingly, my undergraduate students have weighed in similarly. Many criticize The Giving Tree as a poor model for the relation of parent and child. Opinions are mixed, but a significant majority object to the book. They do not like the boy in Silverstein�s story, or the tree, for that matter. They view the boy as selfish, insensitive, and spoiled by the anthropomorphized tree, and view the tree as the epitome of a permissive and destructively indulgent parent.
I liked the article and what it had to say on parenting; but I disagreed with the author’s take on the book because I don’t think the book is fundamentally about the parent/child relationship or about human relationships at all. The author is right that if you read the relationship between the tree and the boy as a positive one, intended as a model of human relationships, it is a seriously flawed story and not worthy of passing on to children. However, I don’t think the book is intended as a model for how we are to interact with each other. I think it is a parable.
The Giving Tree quite accurately portrays the relationship many of us, probably most of us, have with God. We ask and we ask and we ask, we take and we take and we don’t offer thanks, gratitude or true love. And yet God gives and gives and gives and loves us anyway, despite our faults.
Just look at how in the Old Testament Israel is continually portrayed as the faithless wife while God is the faithful husband who never turns his back on his beloved, never gives up, never stops loving. Just look at Christ, the Bridegroom, hanging from the cross, the ultimate giving tree.
I guess it depends on how you discuss the book and read it with children. Do you explain why the boy’s actions are selfish and how the tree’s love is like God’s love for us? Do you discuss how our selfishness wounds God, each selfish act becoming a disfiguring blow, a nail driven into Christ’s hands or feet, a whip across Christ’s back? St. Paul says that he loved us while we were yet sinners, just as the tree loves the boy even when the boy takes the tree’s self-giving love terribly for granted.
If you are going to criticize the book for its portrayal of a bad parent/child relationship, you might as well criticize Christ as well for giving us a bad example in the parable of the prodigal son. If the tree is a bad, permissive, dangerously indulgent parent, then what can you say except that the father in the parable is a bad parent as well.
I love The Giving Tree, have always loved it since my parents read it to me, because my child’s heart always understood in the story a parable of the Father’s boundless love for his undeserving, thankless, selfish, Prodigal children.