How to Be a Dad

How to Be a Dad

The Living Tree

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Last night I was reading with my son during our nightly pre-bedtime read marathon.

This guy gets bossy in his marshmallow chair.

We sat critiquing the various characters and their behavior. There were the obvious socio-environmental questions about The Lorax, the revelation that The Goldbug in Richard Scarry’s books was actually a metaphor for racism and we also agreed that Winnie the Pooh’s honey addiction needed to be addressed if he’s ever to have meaningful relationships. You know, the standard conversations.

Then he went for a book that he’d never pulled off the shelf with me before. Finnegan grabbed The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.

Now, before you click off the page because I sound insane, and go look for some photo galleries or celebrity gossip, hear me out.

We sat down in the marshmallowy rocking chair in his room and read the thoughtful, heartbreaking book. I was still moved to salt water.

But something had changed.

I’ll admit I haven’t read the book in quite some time even though Finn is sort of a book addict these days and ransacks the bookcase. We often spend hours reading but reciting this book aloud was like reading anew. There is an old paradox that says you can’t cross the same river twice. I guess the same goes for children’s books.

My father gave me amazing experiences. Like this cow who tried to take my arm off, for example.

My son immediately grasped the boy’s selfishness. He was concerned. Finn saw the boy as more of a menace and self-centered taker. I was impressed. For a 3-year-old, I thought Finn’s batting average was high, but this was something different. He actually felt bad for the tree.

Growing up, so many of us interpreted the same pro-environment and anti-greed message from of The Giving Tree. It’s the clear metaphor. But I twigged on thought process that was completely knew to me, sitting next to my son in his jammies: Is the tree selfless or simply a martyr?

I followed my train of thought on a measly, mental handcar and the hidden message was revealed. Timothy Jackson of Stanford University’s Religious Studies says it a bit more eloquently:

“The more you blame the tree, the more you have to fault the very idea of parenting. Should the tree’s giving be contingent on the boy’s gratitude? If it were, if fathers and mothers waited on reciprocity before caring for their young, then we would all be doomed.”

What is unconditional love but being grateful to give until we have nothing left? We are the tree, the infinite provider. We must give of ourselves with everything we have and are. If we don’t, we risk our child’s future. The book is a hidden language to parents, as much as a cautionary tale to kids. We allow our loneliness and pain to diminish the concept of our giving. Everything we have will be taken away, we know that.

The tree was grateful for her time. And, The Giving Tree, with its paper pages birthed the trunk from a lonely tree gave me that gift.

I’m grateful.

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19 Responses to “The Living Tree”

  1. Dad or Alive says:

    Great post…just seeing the cover art for the book made me cross that river again!

  2. Julia says:

    The giving tree is an amazing book. I first heard of it last year, when a dear friend from the US gave it to my daughter. It allows to so many readings and sort of messes up with your mind, but it a good way, doesn’t it?

  3. It’s kinda like “Love You Forever” which is beautiful but also a little creepy and weird… and codependent. BUT healthy relationships with our children do not follow the same rules as healthy relationships between adults. When I first read “Love You Forever” I thought it was sweet but weird, but now I get it (my son is almost 2). I totally get it. I will probably be sneaking into my son’s room to rock him back and forth and tell him that I’ll love him forever until I’m dead as well. I get it. I get why she does it. It’s the same kind of unconditional, no expectation of return, love that is shown in The Giving Tree.

    It’s funny how both of these stories talk about mothers and sons, and the sons are selfish and kinda forget about and neglect mom once they are grown up. Oh man, not looking forward to that.

  4. I think we should stick to the mother-earth-vs-humanity angle. If we try to dig too much into the parenting angle, we unearth a conversation you can see play out in families dealing with a child who is addicted to drugs or alcohol. We as parents SHOULDN’T just give, give, give, as our kids just take and wander off to squander our offerings elsewhere. It’s really weak to compare this to a show like Intervention, but you constantly see families where a child’s addiction is furthered by a parent simply providing money or a place to stay to their kids – giving unconditionally – the counselor always tells them to stop enabling their kids. What the kids need is to actually be accountable for their actions and the resources that they receive.

    I’m not saying that we shouldn’t love our kids – or give them everything we can. If we’ve got a dollar to spare, it should go to enriching our kids and making them into beautiful people. But the giving needs to have a recourse and a follow-through. We need to see the forest for the trees, as it were.

    I think when you say that you’ll risk your kid’s future if you don’t give infinitely, you aren’t seeing that sometimes, not giving is giving too. Problematically, we’re also talking with tangibles and intangibles in the same landscape here, so it’s possible we’re on the same page and I’m just kicking up dust on something that we’re both seeing eye-to-eye on.

    I love The Giving Tree – and I think it’s a great tale about the interplay between earth and humanity – and even a tale about parents and kids. But something doesn’t completely click with me carrying the metaphor over to parents and kids.

    • charlie says:

      Zachary, always the contrarian.
      First, do you believe in unconditional love? What does it cost you? Giving doesn’t cost anything so long as it aligns with assisting the survival and well-being of our kids. That’s a true “give.”
      Second, I think your definition of give is limited. Sometimes giving is also taking away or providing strength and rigor to life. My point, which you sort of missed in an effort to digress into the “Intervention” angle, is that there is nothing wrong with being a provider, someone dedicated to the well-being and future of our children. The obsession with supplanting love for material assistance and emotional dependency is a different lesson than the one I learned. That’s for another post, one I’m hedging writing because I know too much about it.
      We live in an already too-selfish age. I don’t think it’s necessary to point up individualism in certain cases because we’re already so self-obsessed as it is.
      My counterpoint to that, and really my personal observation from reading this book in a new light, is simply that we are charged with a duty which includes but isn’t limited to creating and presenting opportunities for our kids to thrive. Sometimes there is sacrifice in that. I’m glad for the opportunity.

      • Kerry says:

        Wow, big discussion here…Guys, I can see and agree with some of your points. Zach – I especially appreciate “sometimes, not giving is giving too.” this rings very true for me right now in my quest to successfully parent a 3 year old boy who is a little behind the curve on self regulation and adaptation. When you’re raising an infant everything you read has to do with responding immediately and always to their needs. Always Give, and Give everything. But if that style of parenting continues past infancy you’re going to have big troubles.

        Charlie – of course there is NO other choice than to give joyfully and give all. I especially appreciate “giving doesn’t cost anything” so long as it is in alignment. And what narcissists we would be if our giving was contingent upon gratitude. But I reiterate one of Zach’s points…sometimes not giving is giving. The hardest thing in the world is to see my child struggle, to see him unhappy. But the only way he will learn self sufficiency, self worth is if I don’t always GIVE. I must stand back and let him GET. Let him do for himself.

        Now, perhaps I am reading my own issues into the post…these are after all the things I am struggling with right now. We read this book often, it’s in our regular rotation. As is “Bossy Bear” by David Horvath – a book in which we learn that the “I want this and I want it now” attitude isn’t very cool or nice. 🙂

        What i am looking for in this discussion is: where is the balance? How to we give everything and do no harm?

        Thanks for this post, it’s really got me thinking.

        • NiIki A says:

          Oh Kerry, I hear you with the 3 year old boy with self regulation/adaptation issues. How exhausting! Add in a quick to melt down/hit/scream and I’m there.

          I think part of the problem that’s going on here is that the Giving Tree only shows giving material things to the detriment of the tree. The tree is not just giving, but actually being depleted to the point of non-existence. At face value, that is not a good metaphor for parenting, it is a dangerous one. I can see it in the micro when I’m trying to do and be everything for my kids because I love them so much. So much that I can’t find time to see my friends, or take a break, or even get a solo shower. Then I end up exhausted, bitter, and grumpy.

          Now, having read your site for awhile, I don’t believe that’s what HTBAD advocates, or what you’re advocating Charlie, I just think that while that message spoke to you, it might not be what a lot of people take away from the post/story.

  5. jetts31 says:

    I never thought about the story through the eyes of being a parent.
    Yes, I think most of us unconditionally give to our kids, aren’t we taking from our kids too? Taking their love, feeding off of their excitement, enthusiasm, and basking in their smiles and ‘I love you’s’?
    Could you argue that there is a reciprocity between parents and their children? We both give, the difference being the one side (kids) ask for it while the other side (parents) wait for it?
    Either way, I see the book in a whole new light and wonder what other books are out there I should be looking at through the lens of a parenthood?

  6. Virginia says:

    Such a great essay. Where is the line between giving and self-preservation? Do I resent spending an hour plus putting a child to bed each night? Yes. Do I do it anyway because it seems to be what she requires right now? Yes. Did parenting get easier when I gave more and expected less? Yes. Thanks.

  7. That book always bugged me, even as a child. And later in life, I learned that the book is supposed to be an analogy of a child’s relationship with his/her mother.

    So I blame my Mom now for the book, some type of Jewish guilt conspiracy with Shel Silverstein and my Mom. Didn’t work.

  8. Amy says:

    I HATE the Giving Tree. Even with a child/parent relationship there are times when the parent needs to say “no more” to their child. I’m thinking of adult children here. Just because you’re a parent it doesn’t mean you have to enable your children if they are truly just using you. On a much lighter note, Goldbug is a metaphor for racism? Please explain!

    • charlie says:

      Never trust anything I say. Especially about GOLDBUG!

      Adult children need a different kind of “give” I’m assuming since I am one and don’t have one. 😉

  9. Jill Amery says:

    Loved this post. One of the best gifts we are given as parents is the ability to discover what unconditional love means. Hopefully we learn to love ourselves unconditionally as well so that we are strong and stable for our children.

    I look at the book more in the light of adaptation, growth and necessary change.

  10. I don’t remember The Giving Tree from my childhood, and when I read it as an adult a few years ago I was turned off by the boy’s selfishness… But this is a whole new angle I hadn’t considered. And it’s totally true- especially thinking of these early months/years with our kids when they don’t give much in terms of feedback or thanks. Obviously that relationship and interplay change over time, but the whole point of unconditional love is to give simply to give, without expecting anything in return. I may have to get my hands on a copy and re-read it with all this now in mind…

  11. buffi says:

    I’ve always had very mixed feelings about The Giving Tree, it’s never been one of my favorite books. But this YouTube video KILLED me when I saw it. I laughed and laughed.

  12. Thais says:

    My father-in-law just read this book to my almost 3-yro twins, and my son cried and cried. He couldn’t verbalize what he was feeling, but I was surprised he grasped the concept. My daughter, no the other hand, was completely unaffected. Hmmm… Not sure what that means.

  13. Faiqa says:

    Very thoughtful analysis. I, myself, question the either/or proposition. I don’t accept that loving someone unconditionally means sacrificing until one has nothing more to give. In fact, I lean towards the idea that caring for your own needs means you have more to give. I’m not sure I want my children to carry the burden of having taken so much from me that I could no longer give. I’ve carried that burden into my adulthood and it’s weight is heavy.

  14. Faiqa says:

    Its not it’s. God.

  15. Kenny says:

    i try to be like the giving tree; however, there are times I’m more like the apple trees in The Wizard of Oz. What? Sometimes people need to be pelted with an apple or two.

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