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.

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