10 Things Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree Taught Us (Besides Giving, That Is)

gtFifty years (I repeat: a half century!) ago, the world was bestowed with Shel Silverstein’s literary wonder The Giving Tree. This slight, leaf-green volume has since become the perfect baby gift, a library mainstay, and a classroom cornerstone, because it teaches—most outwardly—the wonderful lesson of generosity. But is there more to it than that? Scholars have long debated (sometimes quite heatedly) what The Giving Tree seeks to impart to its readers beyond unselfishness. Some say it’s actually the story of God and humankind, or Mother Nature and society, or the classic parent-child relationship, or unrequited romantic love. Some believe it’s a book of adult satire, while others write it off as unbearably sad. Whatever the case, I like to believe it’s a fable about life and life lessons—of what it means to be mortal and flawed, and ultimately enlightened and wise. So, in that vein, here are 10 additional lessons Silverstein’s most heartfelt title teaches us, on top of unconditional charity.

1. Don’t Keep Score
Humans are naturally concerned with fairness, justice, and equality—especially when it comes to themselves. With two sons who constantly compare who got the most millimeters of apple juice, I see this played out several times each day. In short, not tallying things up is one hard lesson for us needy people to learn, but The Giving Tree teaches it so well. She gives and gives and gives, never expecting anything in return, never asking for her due, never REMINDING the Boy of all she has sacrificed. It’s not martyrdom, it’s just unchecked altruism. In her infinite wisdom, the Tree knows nothing is ever really lost or gained, neither scientifically nor spiritually, so what’s the point in accurate accounting? (For what it’s worth, I am notoriously bad at math, so I often present my loved ones with emotional invoices for outrageously high fees that I insist are actually a bargain. I need to keep reading this book.)

2. Go Barefoot
What are those things you’re wearing? Stilettos? Unforgiving loafers? Steel-toed boots? Those sandals inspired by gladiators that provide both the arch support and fashion sense of mousetraps? Well, take off those podiatric prisons and get your poor bunions into some sand or grass or mud ASAP! Why? Kids have long known that going shoeless creates feelings of freedom and glee—maybe because contact with nature neutralizes our stressed positive ions with beneficial negative ones, but more probably because we’re giving ourselves permission to break the rules. In The Giving Tree, you’ll notice that The Boy is almost always barefoot—that is, until the temptations of the material world come calling, convincing him to pull himself up by his bootstraps and head into the Big Apple to sell all the little ones. Sigh.

3. You Can’t Outrun (Or Out-Canoe) Your Problems
Life is hard and complicated. So is facing your fears and regrets and wildest dreams and death. But if you ever find yourself so distraught with your predicament that you are willing—at an old, unsteady age—to go barreling out to sea in a crude canoe, it’s time to surrender. This penultimate request from the Boy (for the Tree’s whole trunk!) always struck me as the saddest, the most rock bottom-est moment of the book, and Shel illustrated the hopelessness so well. The lesson here is a good one: don’t fight the waves in a desperate vessel. Let them crash over you before you destroy what you hold most dear. Remember: giving in isn’t giving up. Also, I’m pretty sure there’s a sign at the Log Flume preventing seniors from riding.

4. Just Cool It
What’s all this hustle and bustle? What’s this rat race? WHERE ARE YOU GOING? TO WHAT END??? WHYYYYY??? Sit down! Be still. I mean it! And don’t get up until you’ve forgotten what all the fuss was about. (Note: if you’re my age, that shouldn’t take long.)

5. Focus More On What You Need Than What You Want
An orchard sounds more prestigious than a single tree. The whole, wide world seems more exciting than your own backyard. And who wouldn’t want to actually be king instead of just pretending to be one? All of us, really. But to quote a Finnish proverb, “Happiness is a place between too little and too much.” Unfortunately, the Boy learns this truth the hard way. After striving for too much of what he wants, he’s left with too little of what he needs. Another variation of this lesson is: Be Grateful For What You Have, There’s No Place Like Home, Moderation Is Key, and, my personal favorite: Don’t Go Chasin’ Waterfalls. Seriously, people. Step away from Niagara. Especially with that hollowed-out log.

6. Just Be There
Comforting someone who’s down and out isn’t easy. What do we say to make them feel better? What advice do we give? Do we do their laundry? Do we take them out for ice cream? Do we order pizza? Do we quit suggesting food as an emotional solution? Why isn’t this distraught person being more specific about how I can help them? Well, sometimes the best thing we can do for a loved one who’s sad is just to be there. Silent and present. A constant. That’s what the Tree does for the Boy in the end. She’s just there for him. Next to him. (Okay, under him.) Keeping him from feeling alone. How beautiful is that? (Also, doing laundry for someone is always welcome. And by “someone,” I mean “me.”)

7. Say Please And Thank You
This is the one thing the Boy never does in The Giving Tree, and I think it’s at the root (pun intended) of his discontent. Do you know the magic words? (Besides “Here’s chocolate!” and “Let me do your laundry!”)? Good. NOW USE THEM. (Please?)

8. A Picture’s Worth A Thousand Words
Shel Silverstein has a way of drawing that perfectly captures the human condition in all its frailty and charm and filth and weirdness. His big volumes of poetry (A Light in the Attic, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Falling Up, Every Thing On It) are full of especially wacky characters and far-fetched scenarios, but The Giving Tree exudes a unique brand of simplicity. Every line is fraught with emotion, whether it’s the innocence of an untied shoelace or the stunned vacancy of The Boy’s lined face as he ages, or teeny bare toes wrapped around a tree trunk. From trench coat to crudely carved initials to that final, powerful image of a tiny broken man on a tiny broken tree, Shel’s illustrations speak louder than words. And considering how he writes, that’s saying something. You know, by not really saying something.

9. Always Go With Concert Tickets
On a more superficial note, I’ve got to come clean. All these years, seeing the Boy bent over with that treeful of branches on his back, with the intention of wooing a wife with a house made of sticks, has bugged the ever-loving applesauce out of me. I know I just said to be happy with less, to be grateful for simple pleasures, but COME ON! No wonder the Boy ends up alone and miserable. You cannot win any woman over (not even the bride of Bigfoot) with kindling. Jewelry is best, but at the very least—LISTEN, FELLOWS—go with lower level seats to Timberlake. It might make her okay with a teepee. Or at least occasionally camping. Phew. I feel better now.

10. Let Love Rule
You probably think that the Tree got the raw deal in this book. That love really isn’t the answer, because, hey! Just look where unconditional love got her. Well, let me counter by saying: Just look where not-loving got the Boy. If everyone just acted on love instead of fear, we’d be a lot better off. We’d have each other and our branches and none of our shoes and all of the apples and houses NOT made of twigs. Now. Doesn’t that sound nice?

What other lessons, profound or funny, have you learned from The Giving Tree?

  • flourgirl

    Trying my best to not be the Boy.

  • DrewFirst

    This story should be called “The Taking Boy”

  • Jennifer Leigh Dudek

    Maybe the boy taught the tree her worth. How much she had to offer this world. Possibly we believe so arrogantly think we are meant to teach our kids (micromanage) them. Possibly the boy is a gift and they are here to teach us too.

  • Carrie Kube

    Maybe it can teach kids about taking others for granted and how that is not a good thing. Maybe seeing their parents in that tree.

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