The Giving Tree

Why did I get this sick fucking book for my kid? Why do I read it to her? What is wrong with me?

You’ve all read it, right? The codependent martyr tree and the boy who uses her until she’s nothing more than a stump? And then he avails himself of her stump.

I know, I know, I know, it’s supposed to be a metaphor for a mother’s love for her children. She’ll give them everything they need and be happy when they’re happy and not demand anything for herself and isn’t that lovely?

Except that first of all, the tree is not the boy’s mother. You can tell by how she – or what’s left of her – is still around when he’s old and gray. So it’s not just about maternal love, it’s about a particular kind of love that can get applied to any number of relationships. And it’s not an accident that the tree is a girl and the boy is a boy. I’m sure there are plenty of codependent martyr men out there, but a) I suspect their fewer and farther between than women, and b) it’s less normalized in men. Women are supposed to be endlessly giving, nurturing, and supportive of their loved ones, even at their own expense. When men behave like that, it’s because they are pussy-whipped.

Second, even if the tree is Mom, that’s a sick relationship for a mother to have with her children, too! Yeah, when they’re young, they require you to give up a lot of your own interests and needs in order to tend to theirs. But you’re not supposed to do that forever. You’re supposed to give them everything you can while they’re babies, and then slowly ease off so that they develop their own abilities and shit. You’re supposed to be a person, not just a mother, so that you’ll be sane and emotionally healthy and even something of a role model for your kids, someone they could see wanting to be. No kid wants to grow up to be the Giving Tree.

Furthermore, if you make everything you are all about your kid and give away every part of your for their sake forever, you will get one of two results. Either your kid, like the boy in this book, will callously expect you to give him everything you have and everything you are forever, while giving you nothing in return, not even an acknowledgment of your sacrifice or love, even to the point where you are nothing but a stump and then he wants to sit on you. That kid is going out into the world, by the way, equally callous and blind to the needs of those around him. He expects this same kind of behavior from lovers, friends, co-workers. He’s awful. And, because he can’t figure out how to make his own contributions to the world; because he can’t give love, only receive it; he’s massively unhappy.

Or you’ll get a kind, compassionate kid who does genuinely love you and is capable of loving others and is also crushed by the responsibility he bears for your whittling yourself down to nothing for his sake. Because this kid wants you to be happy. He wants you to have your love returned to you. So he’ll still try to climb your trees when he’s sixty even though he’s probably going to break a leg, because you want him to so very badly and he doesn’t want to be a shit; after all, you were the one who gave him all your branches when he needed a house. How could he not do the little things that make you happy? And look, he’ll really try hard to resist it when you want to give him your entire trunk, leaving you nothing but a stump. And then when you absolutely insist that no, you really want to give him your trunk, you only have a trunk because you want it to be useful to him, you’ll even cut your own trunk down and give it to him so now he might as well use it even if he was going to give up on the idea of an around-the-world trip in a tree trunk after all, he’ll take the trunk – and feel massively guilty all the time about it. Or he’ll grow a backbone, refuse the trunk – and feel massively guilty because you’re sad that he won’t take your trunk. He will probably develop ulcers or a heart condition.

And yet, I bought this book! I read it as a kid, and I read it to my brother when he was little, so I knew what was in there, and I still paid actual money so that Zoe could have it, too! And now she loves for me to read it to her because a) it’s got a bright green cover, b) it’s still Shel Silverstein, so the illustrations are appealing and the language is spare and lovely, and c) it makes Mommy cry when she reads it, and Mommy crying is always pretty entertaining.

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