The Co-Dependent Tree

I read a lot of kids’ books when I was young, but I don’t remember most of them because I was a kid and had the memory of a goldfish on a three-day bender. Now that I’m an adult and reading even more kids’ books, I’ve discovered that there are good ones and bad ones. My major annoyance is with those that rhyme but do not scan. Perhaps the authors subscribe William Carlos Williams’s view of meter, but I’m guessing they’ve just never heard of scansion.

I’ve grown accustomed to treacly-sweet books. I’ve learned to set aside my annoyance with those books whose moral statements are all but spelled out in ten-thousand-point Copperplate. I’ve been willing to read and re-read books I think aren’t that good but that have caught Eli’s attention.

I have not learned to love The Giving Tree.

If you’re unfamiliar with Shel Silverstein’s book, let me summarize it in a dismissive and completely unfair manner. A boy loves playing on and around an apple tree, and the tree loves him. She provides him with branches to swing from and apples to eat and so forth. Then the boy grows up and his demands increase. He takes all of her apples to sell for money. He takes her branches to build a house. Eventually he takes her trunk to build a boat and sail away. At each step, the tree pretends she’s a doormat and happily gives the boy what he wants. At the end the boy, now a tired old man, returns and the tree offers her stump for him to rest on.

There are any number of possible interpretations. The book has an echo of truth about life and how we use each other, and how we let others use us, and how, even given that, in the end we can all find a measure of comfort. That’s not the problem. What makes me grind my teeth down another few millimeters is not really the book itself, but how some offer it as an example of what a mother’s love should be like towards her children.

If you take the story as a metaphor for parenting, I think it’s a horrible one. Throughout the book, the boy’s requests are described as wants. The only point at which he’s described as needing something is at the end, when he’s old and tired and needs a place to rest. There is a large difference between wants and needs, and children often can’t tell the difference. As a parent, it’s not my job to give my kids whatever they want. It’s to provide them with what they need, even when that’s the opposite of what they want.

It’s true that I don’t look to my kids to validate my parenting. I’m not waiting on them to be grateful for what I do. It’s also true that I’m willing to give everything to them. Regardless, I’m not willing to give into their wants to the point where they become self-centered assholes.

On the other hand, the book did inspire this particular comic from the Perry Bible Fellowship. That’s a net plus.

Share

17 Comments

  1. Chris S.
    on February 19, 2008 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    I agree with you about some of the questionable implications in children’s books. I had forgotten the giving tree, but I agree with you. The one that always got me was Rainbow Fish.

    It’s kind of the same thing, about sharing with other people and I understand what they are trying to say. But, I get the same feeling off of it. That it kind of goes to far IMO, considering the item the fish is forced to share is actually part of his body! Ew, somehow I just can’t get over that.

  2. on February 19, 2008 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, the Rainbow Fish is at the top of my “oh $deity no, why!” list of books with crappy co-dependent lessons for kids.

  3. on February 19, 2008 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    You guys, the Rainbow Fish is clearly just a piece of Communist propaganda. “From each according to his shininess, to each according to his drabness.”

  4. on February 19, 2008 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Oh, I think the Rainbow Fish teaches a great real-world lesson: you can buy friends.

  5. on February 19, 2008 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    I grew up with the understanding that The Giving Tree is an explicit Christian parable, with an assertion that Shel Silverstein was born Jewish but became a Christian. That latter claim has been circulating for a very long time but seems basically unsubstantiated; see e.g. http://shelsilverstein.tripod.com/manning.html .

  6. on February 19, 2008 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Someone else disliked the Rainbow Fish enough to write their own version …
    http://www.amazon.com/Starboortz-Fish-Barbara-Hughes/dp/0979294606

  7. on February 19, 2008 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    ctate, even as Christian allegory, I don’t really buy it. I keep tripping over the tree giving into the boy’s wants, and not necessarily his needs.

    siliconchef, I should have guessed that you’d find the Libertarian version of Rainbow Fish.

  8. on February 19, 2008 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    I was unclear: it was made clear to me that this is What The Book Is About… but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it really is. And I agree that the implications/subtext are pretty awful.

  9. Chris S.
    on February 19, 2008 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    ctate, that’s great thanks linking that. I don’t know how I have never heard of that book, I listen to boortz almost ever day.

  10. Chris S.
    on February 19, 2008 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Oh and on an almost unrelated comment. Stephen today I just figured out I could subscribe to the comments section of your blog via RSS and not just the post.

    You can now take comfort in the fact that you hold 2 spots on my RSS feeds. I know that’s what really matters to you.

  11. on February 19, 2008 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    yay, it’s not just me! I have *hated* that book ever since elementary school, where someone read it aloud at least once a year. Post title rules; that was always how I felt about it.

  12. Lynnea
    on February 19, 2008 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    Oh, I love Rainbow Fish! Ok, so I teach 4-5 year olds everyday–I have my oddities.

    I somehow crack up even years into parenting with Good Night Moon. I mean, come on “Good Night No Body” with a blank page…haha. I love it.

    Best children’s lit ever “Where the Wild Things Are” I found myself quoting it yesterday.

  13. on February 19, 2008 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    Chris, thank siliconchef for the link. And glad to be taking over your RSS feeds. Mua ha ha ha.

    Lynnea, that page of Good Night Moon makes me laugh every time, and I’m a huge fan of Where the Wild Things Are.

  14. on February 20, 2008 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    I completely agree with you about The Giving Tree. What a depressing story — and pointless. I kept waiting for a turn about in the book all the way up to the end, then got there aghast. THere was no turning point. It reads like propaganda on how to be a good little mother to the state or perhaps the message is people suck from childhood to death.

    I haven’t had that reaction to any of the poems Simon and I have read (so far) in Where the Sidewalk Ends. So maybe it is the one book of Silverstein’s that is like that. Maybe he was feeling particularly cynical when he wrote it.

    MC

  15. duchess
    on February 20, 2008 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Late, but I thought of you when I saw slide #5 on “Children’s Books We Would Like to See” that my colleague put together.

  16. on February 20, 2008 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Oh my. Dare I ask what was on slide 5?

  17. duchess
    on February 20, 2008 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Silly me I forgot the link: http://www.crn.com/it-channel/206501826