May 16, 2010  •  In Books, Christianity, Personal, Relationships

Unconditional Love — Is “The Giving Tree” a Depressing Book?

When I was little, I asked my mother what love is.

“Love is something you give away. But unlike other things, the more you give the more you receive in return. If you give one, you get two. If you give two, you get four, and so on. But you shouldn’t give love just for the sake of getting more. You should love as God loves us.”

This statement has had a profound impact on me since I was that curious little girl of four.

Perhaps this is the reason I still cite Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree as one of my favorite books of all time.

A few years ago, I attended my cousin’s daughter’s 1-year birthday party and I decided to gift The Giving Tree, along with a couple of other Shel Silverstein books, as a present.

A younger cousin decided to flip through The Giving Tree when the celebrations began winding down. He had never read, or even heard of the book before, so I awaited his finishing the book with great anticipation.

“Wow, that was DEPRESSING!” he declared as he closed the book shut with a flourish.

“What are you talking about? It’s a great book that teaches the concept of unconditional love, either from parents or from God. It’s one of my favorites!” I countered.

“Yeah, I get that. But don’t you think it’s too dreary for little kids?”

“No…”

However, I did see his point. And I was reminded of this incident once again when I read this quote from Ryan Gosling on Best Week Ever regarding The Giving Tree:

That book is so f**ked 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? F**k you. You be the tree. I don’t want to be the tree.

I was taken back, and shocked further to read that the author of the post, as well as the majority of commentered, agreed with Gosling that The Giving Tree is a depressing, “f**ked up” book.

What say you? Do you think that The Giving Tree is a depressing book?

I can definitely see how people would think so; we live in an imperfect, cynical world. As humans, we are incapable of perfect, unconditional love. Additionally, attempting to love someone with the type of love described in the book has the potential to have devastating effects — whether through heartbreak, unnecessary sacrifice, and/or devaluation of oneself.

But I still stand firm that we should strive for perfect love, as God loves us.

Just as my mother taught me 26 years ago.

And I plan on teaching my kids this important lesson too.

38 Responses to “Unconditional Love — Is “The Giving Tree” a Depressing Book?”

  1. kay says:

    It has been a while since I’ve read through it. I remember it making me sad when I read it – I wouldn’t go so far as effed up or depressing, really. Does every single children’s story has to be, "I want a cookie. Cookies are brown. Cookies are good! Yay 3 cookies!"???? I mean, children can be exposed to different emotions and it’s not going to hurt them if done appropriately. For example, I thought the movie Bridge to Terabithia(sp?) did a great job depicting a child’s death without going overboard.

    Anyway – I thought the whole point of the book was not just unconditional love, but that at the end – the old man realizes his mistakes of using the tree up & realizes the tree was the only thing that stuck by him? Which teaches us to not be selfish with those who unconditionally love us.

    Lots of Shel’s writings have dark undertones for a reason – life has dark, sad undertones. And a small exposure to them (here or there) and a small dose of reality will teach children about some of the harsher things they’ll experience, and ways to approach them so they’re not sheltered/surprised when they happen. Unrequited love is one of those things. Selfishness is one of those things. Loneliness is one of those things.

  2. I think "The Giving Tree" is an incredibly powerful book; I’ve always loved it.

    I also love "Uncle Shelby’s A-B-Z’s" but that’s really for older children… or adults. :-)

  3. amy says:

    i love this book. last year i gifted it to my boyfriend’s 2 year old niece. and i found out that he gave her the same book when she turned 1! haha, we’re such biblophiles. but more importantly we believe in loving unconditionally. the message is a good one to teach.

  4. Sherry says:

    Aww, that’s so sweet of you to feel that way.

  5. tw says:

    I think what makes people dislike the book and have such a strong negative reaction to it is that the boy is so selfish. I really like the tree, but the boy needs a slap because he just keeps taking from the tree and doesn’t really return love to the tree and the love that is illustrated seems really one-sided and not all that fair or exponential.

  6. It’s a sad book, yes. But it’s has a very important message. One about love. And how children probably don’t really understand a parent’s love for a child until they are way older.

  7. Amy says:

    Uhm, no. The Giving Tree is NOT depressing. Kids never think on that level anyway. When I first heard it, I remember thinking about how that tree did just about anything for a friend. Wow…adults over-complicate things a little much.

  8. I don’t think that The Giving Tree is bad. I think sometimes having something a little more serious for a kid to read about isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world. It’s a nice simple way to introduce a topic to a young child.
    Personally, I find I Love You Forever creepier. Why are you breaking into your grown up child’s house at night?

  9. schmei says:

    It’s interesting that there’s no room for sadness in our culture anymore. If something is sad, it’s DEPRESSING, and therefore BAD. I’m so confused by all the antidepressant ads that are targeted at people who are already on meds: "Are you still sad? You need more meds. Because you should be smiling! all! the! time!"

    But it’s really appropriate to be sad sometimes, because life can be heartbreaking.

    The Giving Tree is a beautiful story, but it’s a sad story, and that’s OK. I think it’s a poignant way to show kids that empathy is valuable, that love is beautiful, and that life isn’t always fair, but it’s worth trying to make things a little better for someone else.

    The best kids’ books make us think about what it is to be human, and to do humanity well. This book is one of those.

  10. John Farrier says:

    I can definitely see how people would think so; we live in an imperfect, cynical world. As humans, we are incapable of perfect, unconditional love. Additionally, attempting to love someone with the type of love described in the book has the potential to have devastating effects — whether through heartbreak, unnecessary sacrifice, and/or devaluation of oneself.

    Well, okay. But you’re not actually addressing the objection that Ryan Gosling is making, however briefly. The tree is stuck in a relationship where he’s been used to death. Shouldn’t we teach kids to avoid such relationships? If not, why not?

  11. Geek in Heels says:

    I would hope that my kids would have enough confidence and self-respect to learn to leave abusive relationships. However, I still believe that we should STRIVE to love as God loves us, because I am Christian and will raise my kids to be Christians as well. This isn’t to say that they should let everyone and anyone walk all over them. There is a point where one should "give up" and walk away (and even the Bible acknowledges this). But until that point is reached, we should love and give and continue to reach out to others so that we can show them a glimpse of God’s love through ourselves, however imperfect that may be.

  12. John Farrier says:

    This isn’t to say that they should let everyone and anyone walk all over them. There is a point where one should "give up" and walk away

    This is, sadly, not what the tree does. He lets himself get used until he’s just a stump.

    I’m going to teach my daughter that she’s never under any obligation to remain in an abusive, exploitative relationship. If, for example, her husband beats her, she should leave him. Or more immediately, if she has playmates who just want her possessions, she should feel free to tell them to go away.

    The tree could have taught this value by saying early in the book "Okay, kid, that’s enough from me. You’re an adult — it’s time for you to stand on your own. Oh, and learn to say "thank you" now and then. It’ll help you out in life."

    The tree didn’t. The tree let himself get reduced to a stump and, in the most popular interpretation, is the hero for it. That’s screwed up, and I don’t want my kid ending up a stump to a selfish person like the boy because a book that she read as an impressionable child introduced or reinforced the notion that it’s noble to be hurt by others.

    • Harley pope says:

      I feel that the tree gave all that she had to offer each time even when all that she had was all that had left if that makes since. Each time when she would give and pleased the boy, it made her happy. Love is like that. Loving someone so much that their happiness is the gateway to your happiness. The boy would take a while to come back (much like we are sometimes with God) but each time he did come back even if it was to seek fulfillment in more things. In the end. The boy couldn’t be bought with anything other than sittig with the one who has ways loved him throughout all of his endless and helpless attempts to be fulfilled. The one thing that truly brought him rest was time alone with his stump and loved one through thick and then. Much like how our relationship with God is often one where we need him for all of life’s goals but will one day find fulfillment in realizing te ONLY fulfillment is Him who has showed is unconditional and unwavering love giving us all He has everytime just waiting or the day when we will finally want Him for Him and not for what He can send us out on our own with. Great book!

      • Ed says:

        Well said Harley,
        I think you nailed the true meaning of this story. This is a children’s book, although dark, still ends with both the tree and the boy finding happiness together. People like John and Theresa always seem to see the negative side of things and unfortunately will pass the same on to their children. I, like you, would rather see the positive and teach my children about the benefits of unconditional love.

    • Theresa Miller says:

      To John Farrier,
      Thank you so much for your response and opinion.
      I agree with your views. I’ve always related this book to my mother and it made me very sad.
      She gave everything and received so little in return. My Dad was verbally abusive. He had many demands and expectations; as far as respect, there was none. She kept giving and trying to please, and not once was told “thank you”. It made me mad that she wouldn’t stand up to him and tell him how hurtful he was and that you don’t treat anyone that way. She loved him unconditionally and to the point that she was willing to sacrifice her own happiness. How very sad to live one’s life like that. You are not born to this earth to lose your identity just to cater to an ungrateful human being. My Dad left her after 30 years of a so-called marriage by leaving a note on the dining room table. He left her as a stump, after chopping away all that she had and then when she had nothing else to give, he went on to start up a new life with someone else….to take away from a new tree. I can’t read this book without crying, so I don’t. I should throw it out actually. My Mother is no longer here, but my Dad is still going strong with his chain saw.
      The definition of unconditional is “not limited by conditions”. How ironic is that?
      Thanks again,
      Theresa

  13. Geek in Heels says:

    @John — I guess I should clarify that although the Tree never gives up on the Boy in the book, I would teach my kids the right point to "give up" as the Bible teaches us. Even if I never explicitly tell them this, I will trust them enough to discern for themselves.

    I think you’re taking the book too literally and seriously. Are there important lessons to be gleaned from the book? Sure. But I don’t think that kids will learn from the book that they should be used and abused. Will you not let your kids read/watch "The Little Mermaid" because the main character gives up her family, her voice, and (in the case of the book) her life for the prince? Because if you think about it, almost all beloved books/stories can be seen in a bad light by ANYONE. But this doesn’t mean that I will deprive my children of the stories I loved as a kid. If I — and all my friends — were smart enough to take the good lessons from these books and just ENJOY them (as kids should), I fully trust that my kids will too.

  14. John Farrier says:

    Sure, I’d let my daughter watch The Little Mermaid. Ariel makes some mistakes that a girl shouldn’t but it’s basically a fun movie about the adventures of a little girl. The Giving Tree, on the contrary, is widely accepted a moral literature. That is, the book is accepted as a high moral teaching instrument among works of children’s literature. Your own post is a prime example of this trend: the excitement of the story (such as it is), is not as important as the moral lessons that it conveys. And the moral teaching that this book advocates is a very bad one for children to learn.

    If The Little Mermaid was regarded a source of direct moral instruction for children, I’d object to that to. But it’s not, so there’s less reason for concern. If someone writes "Be like Ariel" or "God wants you to be like Ariel", I’d strongly object. But unlike The Giving Tree, I’ve never once encountered such advocacy.

  15. Geek in Heels says:

    @John — see it as you will. I just never personally read the book as a child and thought to myself that I must let people use and abuse me to show my love. The story to me is one of unconditional love, the kind that can be seen in parent-child relationships as well as God-people relationships. I know that I would give up my life for this child inside of me, and I would have done the same for her when she was merely an embryo. Does this make me a masochist? Does this mean that I have severe emotional/psychological problems? Does this mean that I would spoil my kid rotten and let her to whatever she wants, even if that means hurting me? No. All I know is that I understand where the Tree is coming from, and that the book is a beautiful illustration of that unconditional love.

  16. manz says:

    I can’t stand this book. Yes, giving generously of yourself is a wonderful ideal, but even as a child I felt that this was an abusive, one-sided relationship. The boy never even says thank you, not to mention never gives of himself in return. I do not think it is a positive overall message, and it is not because of the sadness. I think books that deal with death and sorry are important. It’s because the tree in this book is selfless to the point of being completely used up (literally), and that’s just not a positive thing.

  17. James Rednour says:

    It’s a powerful book that evokes strong feelings of empathy, but I don’t like it for the reasons manz states above. If the last panel had the boy evince even a shred of gratitude, I would change my opinion. But he sits simply because it is what he needs to do. An optimistic reader would say he’s learned to love and be grateful, but there’s no evidence of that. A realist would say that one more panel in the book would have the man leave without thanking the tree and never return (unless of course he needs a footstool in his old age and digs up the stump to make one). That’s not to say that the book can’t teach unconditional love, but I don’t find the book pleasant or happy by any means.

  18. Geek in Heels says:

    @James — I guess that’s the difference between you and me, that I am an optimist who likes to think that the boy has learned. :-)

  19. Aaron says:

    Wow.

    One of the marks of good literature is how many different strong emotions and how much discussion about it’s underlying "meaning" it can generate. Based on this thread, and others like it, I would almost require my kids to read this, because I want them to be exposed to good literature. And I would encourage them to think about it, understand it, and decide what the message is for themselves.

    I don’t like this string in our consciousness that the "message" of all media must be revealed and understood before we allow our children to encounter it. Few things stand up well, especially in a post-modern, deconstructionist society. Disney films? The Bible? Grimm Fairy Tales? No. None of these things are "appropriate" for children when you look at the message they really contain. And more importantly, when you look at the social control they were originally developed to implement. Especially from the "abusive relationship" perspective. Job? Abraham? Snow White? Toy Story? Not role models for kids.

    But they’re good stories, good literature, and part of being a "well-read" child. Would you want your kid to be the only one amongst their childhood friends that never read this book? Do you want to set up that embarrassment for them?

    Moviebob had a similar post today about the "message" of the Twilight movies. He makes the point, and I agree, that his dislike of the series’s message is completely separate from his critique of the series as a work of art. I kept thinking, as I read this, of Narnia and Lord of the Rings, both of which have also been decried for their thinly veiled religious message and societal views, but are still beloved because they are good books. I would protest "The Giving Tree" if it was poorly written, but it’s not. It moved me to tears as a kid, and even then I recognized how rare and important that is in children literature.

    Two other thematic thoughts come to mind. First, I wonder how much the perceived message changed as our cultural views on environmentalism shifted. When this book was written, trees were there to give wood to build houses and fruit to eat. This boy didn’t seem a monster, because that was the correct relationship between people and trees. I wonder now if there’s an underlying environmentalism that makes it seem more monstrous: he destroys a living thing for his own selfish needs? What a villain!

    Second, the important discussion about the book seems to be, from both a relationship/generosity and environmental perspective, at what point did the giving become "too much"? Fruit? Fine. Climbing? Fine. Some branches? Fine. But giving too much was problematic if for no other reason than it hurt the tree’s ability to give in the future. The idea that you can sheer a sheep many times, but only fleece it once. Take some apples and some branches, then leave and come back next year to take more. Give yourself, and the tree, time to recover and grow in the meantime. Furthermore, what does it mean that this tree only gives to its friends and not strangers that are in need?

    It wasn’t until I came back as an adult and reread it that I started to think about the "themes" and "abusive relationships". The message I got as a child was that giving did not truly diminish the giver. It made the relationship stronger, the tree did not "die", and even at the end when the tree though it had given everything, it still was able to give and help a friend. That’s not "abusive unconditional love"; that’s generosity. That’s giving what you have and do not need to a friend or loved one that does need it.

    Response I’m imagining to that: "But the tree needs its leaves! It needs its branches! Those are vital parts of its anatomy!"

    Response to my imagined responders: Are you a registered organ donor? If not, why not? More specific analogy: would you donate a kidney or part of your liver to someone that needed it? To a stranger? To a friend? To a relative?

    But like I said at the beginning, the moral underpinnings are not why I like this book; I liked it because it’s a good book, well written, that I could read and enjoy as a child and still remember as an adult. There are plenty of things I read as a child that I couldn’t remember now if my life depended on it, but this book stuck. Because it is a good book. The morality is part of what made it good, but because it added depth, not because of the "lesson".

  20. Sarah says:

    I just read this book with my daughters (5 and 2) and like some of the other commentators, both my girls loved the tree and praised all the good sharing she did. I actually just blogged about using the Giving Tree a sort of a "baby’s first book club discussion" book. We talked about the importance of sharing, how the boy might have shared more with the tree.

    I still have a problem with the tree’s over-sharing, to the point of self-destruction. If it’s a metaphor for parenting, I understand it, but am utterly depressed by it. If it is a metaphor for the way the Earth is giving up resources as quickly as we will take them, I agree, am trying to do my part, and am still utterly depressed by it…. but then, as much as I love Shel Silverstein, so many of his poems strike a depressing or dark chord. This fits right in. Life is bittersweet.

    But there is a lot of room for interesting and meaningful discussion about this book, even with a five year old!

  21. mark says:

    It’s a metaphor for many “love” relationships. they are never equal, and some are much more one-way than others. If you are willing to give all you have for some scraps of attention until you have nothing left, then you have some serious issues. When the boy was young he seemed to truly love the tree – and tree always had that to reflect on. But, as in many relationships, the boy “outgrew” the tree and became selfish.

    He did not learn from the tree – please – folks who said that are in some sort of fairy land. He abused and destroyed the tree, taking whatever he needed for himself. I see this book for kids as much more of a cautionary tale that reveals the real truth behind some people and and their selfishness in the name of “love”. That’s not love, that’s abuse and taking advantage. In the end of the book the “tree” is so damaged it can no longer really live. The boy too took more than the tree really could afford to give and still live – and the boy could care less. that’s a real lesson for kids – beware of people who say one thing (such as “i love you”) but act very differently.

  22. Strill says:

    I hate this book because it tries to tell kids that accepting their parents love and affection causes their parents incredible pain, anguish, and physical degradation, and that it will eventually be their own selfishness that kills their parents. The moral is that children should feel guilty and ashamed whenever they ask or receive something from their parents, which I find a sick disgusting moral.

    This is not an appropriate allegory for selfless unconditional love. Unconditional love does not tell us to become enablers for other people’s selfish banal pleasures as the tree was for the boy. It tells us to show others how to also be selfless, and to build them up so they can be self-sufficient and show others the same love we showed them. Furthermore, sacrificing one’s life just because someone asks you to is also not unconditional love, it’s shortsighted self-deprecating masochism. Someone showing unconditional love would know when to stop feeding another’s selfish habit. They’d also consider whether their life is worth what the other person is getting in exchange for it. Just because you can sacrifice your life for something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to do it, even if it might help someone somehow. A truly selfless person would consider whether that sacrifice is worth the good they could continue to do for others, rather than just arbitrarily putting one person above all others.

  23. ava shava says:

    On Tree Giving:

    The tree is not human
    But it is a character,
    Who pleads with the human
    To take…..and take more.

    The tree is not human.
    The tree is a character…. a personality.
    The tree’s potential can only manifest
    Through the human’s awareness, acceptance, and physical action.
    The tree is a living breathing spiritual energy.
    The tree is not human.

    Potential energy is energy stored in an object.
    This energy has the potential to do work.
    Gravity gives potential energy to an object.
    This potential energy is a result of gravity pulling downwards.
    The gravitational constant, g,
    Is the acceleration of an object due to gravity.
    As the object gets closer to the ground,
    Its potential energy decreases while its kinetic energy increases.
    The difference in potential energy
    Is equal to the difference in kinetic energy.
    After one second,
    If the potential energy of an object fell ten units,
    Then its kinetic energy has risen ten units.
    Potential energy units are joules……
    But for this…..let’s say jewels…..

    The human quickly
    Turns its own potential energy to kinetic energy.
    The Tree slowly turns its potential energy to kinetic energy.
    The human can also quickly
    Turn the tree’s potential energy to kinetic energy.

    Kinetic energy is energy in motion.
    Kinetic energy is the energy contained by a form of matter
    Because of its motion,
    When matter is not in motion, it contains potential energy,
    Potential energy transfers into kinetic energy
    When a force is applied to the object
    To make it move in some way…..some sway…some phase

    Life seems to balance energy joyfully.

    Perhaps unconditional love is the transfer of energy.
    Perhaps love is energy.
    Perhaps the cycle of potential & kinetic energies is love
    Perhaps the cycle is karma
    Perhaps the cycle is dharma
    Perhaps the Cycle is.

    Maybe the tree is a living breathing spiritual energy.
    Maybe the human is a living breathing spiritual energy
    With higher resistance to gravity.

    Oh, The joy of catching a human’s energy
    Whatever the consequence,
    Maybe transforming.
    Lovely!

    I don’t know if I agree with myself
    Potentially and kinetically
    I am grateful for gravity.

  24. joshua walker says:

    the tree went out like a chump
    he failed to realize that healthy realationships are about give and take not give give give
    pathetic excuse for a tree

  25. KJN says:

    “Once there was a tree… and she loved a little boy” Seems many have not even really “read” the book as they keep refering to the tree as “he”

  26. KJN says:

    All the negative comments about this book say a lot about our society today, which in my opinion, is much sadder than the book. “sigh” The tree is loving and caring and wants the best for the boy and wants for nothing more than for him to be happy. Sounds like most moms that I know. I have two boys, and never in all myself sacrifice do I feel taken advantage of. I do it out of love. My parents have just taken custody of my niece and nephew and they have sacrificed their retirement and way of life to give these children a better life, with no regrets or ill feelings. I find it “depressing” that so many people only see the perceived negativity in this book. Society seems to become more and more closed-minded. This is a perfect case of the cup being half empty vs half full.

  27. MILLY says:

    It is a sad book and every time I see the cover it makes me want to cry. But it also makes me happy :)

  28. Austin Eastman says:

    i think that the tree represents a mother type figure here. she gives all she can to the boy, and to see him happy in tern makes her happy. and i wouldent say that its a depressing fucked up book. yes at the end the tree is only a stump, but that is all the boy needs. and the tree is happy because she still has the boy.

  29. Rhonda says:

    I love this story, but I don’t necessarily believe children can appreciate it. They may take away a lesson in selfishness and what it does to others, and that’s not a bad thing.

    What I love most about this story is that you can wear a tree right down to a stump, but with strong roots, it will come back. The tree never leaves, because she is a tree. Because she has roots keeping her in place, she is always there for her boy.

    Children are like that. They are selfish by nature, but in the end, we don’t leave them because we have roots. We don’t leave them because they ARE our roots. We give the most important parts of ourselves to our children. What they do with them after they grow up is their responsibility. Not ours. The love we have for our children never, ever dies. Just like the tree. :)

  30. Dimitri says:

    My mom read this book to me when I was only 2, and today it is still one of my favorite books ever written. This book definitely teaches us about unconditional love and how we should treat those that hold a special place in our hearts. Those that say this book is “f**cked up” are probably having terrible relationships now haha. Silverstein should have won a Nobel prize for this.

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