The Giving Tree Or How Stumpy And The Boy Find Happiness

I read The Giving Tree to my son last night. Twice. His request.

Honestly, it’s a strange book.

Is the tree supposed to represent his mom? Motherhood consists of mutual love and admiration (also known as the child swing on the tree, eating apples and playing in it’s shade) until the child outgrows the mother? And the mom continues to give everything (apples for money, branches for a house, tree trunk for a boat) until she’s an unhappy stump? And finally the boy comes back to her, sits on her, and that makes her happy?

I’m not saying that the boy needs to learn to say thank you. Because I didn’t chose to become a mom for the pats on the back. (Maybe a few back rubs from my husband though.) My kids can pat their own kids if they want to thank me. But perhaps the tree needs to figure out what makes HER happy. Because as a stump, the book suggests that she is NOT happy. And maybe she’s little bit too needy since she is only happy once again when the boy (now an old man) sits on her.

And the boy? Well this happiness problem is multigenerational. He thinks money, a wife, children, and finally a boat to escape, will make him happy. But they are clearly temporary solutions. Is he ever TRULY happy? He seems his happiest as a child playing in the tree. But who wants to burn out their bright star as a ten year old?

Is this a sad story of the state of our needy culture always looking for the next thing, the next event, to make us distracted and happy? Or the other side of our needy culture, where we sit around waiting to be martyrs and give and give thinking if the people that I love are happy, I’ll be happy? That our happiness is conditional on others and not on our own wellness? What if the people we love are unable to be happy?

And is happiness so easily won? Just by giving? Didn’t Mother Teresa give of herself constantly and felt more often than not that she was tormented and alone?

Does this mean we should KEEP instead of GIVE. The Tree That Said No. The Boy Who Found Happiness Without A Tree.

I finally read the synopsis of the book by the publisher:

‘Once there was a tree…and she loved a little boy.’

So begins a story of unforgettable perception, beautifully written and illustrated by the gifted and versatile Shel Silverstein.

Every day the boy would come to the tree to eat her apples, swing from her branches, or slide down her trunk…and the tree was happy. But as the boy grew older he began to want more from the tree, and the tree gave and gave and gave.

This is a tender story, touched with sadness, aglow with consolation. Shel Silverstein has created a moving parable for readers of all ages that offers an affecting interpretation of the gift of giving and a serene acceptance of another’s capacity to love in return.

So the book is about giving without expectation. And about accepting another person’s limits and ability to love. Well, I can hang with that because that is the essence of life. Learning to give for the sake of giving and not for a thank you or a parade (although I LIKE PARADES). And meeting people where they’re at — not expecting them to be what I WANT or NEED. But expecting them to be who they are. And maybe even learning to LOVE who they are.

Perhaps the tree always knew the boy’s faults and inability to love her back, but loved him anyway. And the tree may have given for the wrong reasons — longing to make a boy happy who couldn’t be happy. But maybe the boy’s taking MADE the tree happy. The taking in and of itself allowed the tree to feel useful. Maybe the tree becomes unhappy as a stump because she believes that she has no more to give; therefore, is useless.

And in the end, through their faults and misplaced love, they’re okay. Maybe the tree and the boy are even happy on the final page. Old and stumpy. But happy. And who doesn’t want that?

Alex Iwashyna

Alex Iwashyna went from a B.A. in philosophy to an M.D. to a SAHM, poet and writer by 30. She spends most of her writing time on, a humor blog (except when it's serious) about her husband fighting zombies, awkward attempts at friendship, and dancing like everyone is watching. She also has a soft spot for culture, politics, and rude Southern people who offend her Yankee sensibilities. She parents 2 elementary-aged children, 1 foster baby, 3 cats, and 1 puppy, who are all Southern but not rude. Yet.

14 thoughts to “The Giving Tree Or How Stumpy And The Boy Find Happiness”

  1. I've had many of the same thoughts as I've read this book to my son, and I've always thought it was kind of a strange book as well. What I really don't like about this book is that the boy keeps coming back to the tree, taking more and more, and he doesn't seem to have an understanding or appreciation for what the tree is giving him. I think in any relationship, it's important for the person on the receiving end to have some appreciation for what they're given. As a parent, I understand the desire to give and give and give to your child, as the tree gives to the boy, but I hope that along with giving so much to my son, that I give him the ability to feel gratitude and appreciation. Not to give me a pat on the back, but because I really don't believe that you can be happy unless you are able to feel gratitude for life's blessings, and when you are happy, you are more likely to want to give to other and more able to love unconditionally, as the tree loves the boy.

    By the way, I love your blog!

  2. I'm so glad you like the blog!! It's so encouraging to here that.

    I like your take on the book especially the idea that gratitude
    creates happiness! Along those lines, I've taught my children to use
    please, thank you, & I'm sorry because I believe that it is important
    to be able to express gratitude and responsibility, respectively. It's
    a 'life skill.' And whether my three yr old understands the words
    doesn't matter to me. It will come. Or it won't and he'll be fake
    polite for the rest of his life. Better the being the really rude
    person, right?

    Thanks for commenting!

    Alex Iwashyna

  3. I have always loved this book. Brings tears to my eyes everytime. My children, on the other hand, cannot stand it. They have never let me finish reading to them. They say the boy is so mean to the tree.

    Good, huh?

    Enjoy your posts VERY MUCH.

  4. Your kids sound so sweet and sensitive. I used to not be able to stand the Velveteen Rabbit because the family threw him away when he loved the Boy so much. And now I love the story. I wonder if that will change for your children as well.

  5. I'm glad I found your blog!

    I love this book. I never actually looked at it the way you do, even though I tend to critique everything I read, especially when it's about–or seems to be about–a woman's sacrifice. This book, though, just goes right to the core of me, and I'm not able to critique it. It has always made me cry. I guess I do think it's about the capacity to love and not expect anything in return. Sure, the guy is selfish, but the tree doesn't mind. I think I understood that it was about motherhood before I became a mother. I would and will give and give to my kids, even though I want to teach them to love and give back. Even if they don't, I will still give.

    It makes us mothers pretty special creatures, doesn't it?

  6. Me, too! And I'm glad that I found yours. Plus, I love a good critique… of just about anything 😉

    And I appreciate how you describe motherhood — I had no idea that was in the job description and I'm not sure that I would've thought that I was up for the task. But now I wouldn't change it for anything!

  7. Wow, so interesting you posted about this book. We got this as a gift a few years ago and I had the same kind of mixed feelings about it that you did…it's touching but a little strange at the same time. Or maybe it feels strange to me because I see my mother in the giving tree, or maybe it's the dialogue, the way the tree talks to the boy (“Come boy…”) that makes me think of the wicked witch in Snow White…anyway, my interpretation is the same as what you wrote toward the end – that this tree, the “mom” is happiest when giving and when her gifts are being taken and enjoyed. It makes her feel useful. I guess the part that nags at me is the idea that she is so self sacrificing, that aside from mothering she has no sense of purpose. That is something I want to avoid as a mother as much as possible. Anyway, have you read Love You Forever by Robert Munsch? I'd be curious to hear what you think of that one…similar kind of theme but a little creepy in my mind…

  8. That is so interesting that you would bring up “Love You Forever” because it came up around this book on facebook comments too… I had never thought of them together but it is another intense mom character. And kinda weird of her to sneak into her son's room. Overall, that book doesn't throw me as much as The Giving Tree does. I'll have to re-read it though. Maybe read it to E – although at the rate we're going, if I don't like the message, he'll be all over it!
    And the idea of having no sense of purpose beyond motherhood terrifies me. Which is probably part of the strong reaction to this book.

  9. i read this while i was at Fully Booked years ago. i cried so hard i had to find a corner to tidy myself.

    it was a good read, but i wasnt emotionally prepared that time.

  10. Isn't it amazing how much books can move us? We have a book for E about how a boy gives his ticket to the circus to another boy (it's apart of the chicken soup series for kids i think) and I cried EVERY SINGLE TIME I read it. For like a year.
    Words are so powerful. Makes me realize that “think before you speak” is a motto to truly embrace.

  11. I LOVE the fact that you are able to say, “Uh, I just don't get it.” That's how I feel about Where the Wild Things Are. I really liked the book growing up and then went to the movie and felt like I had to psycho analyze everything and came up with some really good insight…then I said, “or I just don't get it.” Anyhoo! Lots of peeps use this to illustrate Christ's love for us. The tree being the cross and dying for everyone…even those that say “But I don't want it”. Unconditional love. It's a BIG thing.

  12. How interesting because I had begun another paragraph about the tree as God. But my post would've become a book.
    We'll have to discuss that idea because I did have some questions about Jesus-as-a-tree…. cool that you brought it up 🙂

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