Instinctively, I've always known there was more to The Giving Tree than the standard and well known interpretation of it (that basically the tree doesn't know how to say no or establish boundaries but that being selflessly giving is a good virtue to have regardless). While I don't completely disagree with this interpretation, I knew there was something deeper to the story that was always beyond my grasp of understanding.
I've been reading Shel Silverstein since I was a kid (thank you Reba for gifting me "Falling Up." I wish I could tell you in person how much being given that book meant to me. I still have the memory of the exchange ingrained in my memory.) I've read pretty much all of Shel's books and The Giving Tree is often my go-to gift for friends who are expecting. I never thought too much about why that was, but when I discovered what I felt was the true meaning behind the book, it started to make more sense.
What I believe is the true interpretation of the book came to me one ordinary night when I was reading it to my daughter Flo before bed-- she was about three years old at the time. I had read it to her countless times at that stage, but that night, something finally clicked. Before I could even fully process what had happened inside my brain, I found myself crying. I tried to hold back the tears but I simply couldn't. Looking a little concerned, Flo asked me what was wrong. I took a few deep breaths to make sense of the experience and began to tell her:
"Well Flo, I'm realising I am the tree in this story. You see, the tree represents this little boy's caretaker." Cue more tears. "The reason the tree is always so happy to give to the boy is because when you're a parent, you see no end to the amount you want to give and help your child. And no matter how old the tree gets or how much the boy takes, the tree finds joy in giving because the joy of giving to your child never goes away. I would give the clothes off my back to you in a winter storm if it meant you'd be warm, and the tree is the same."
I think this moment was so emotional for me because I was able to see my own parents in a different light too. Seeing them as the tree and me as the little boy was very moving, thinking about all the sacrifices they have made for me and my brothers that I'm not even fully aware of, that I've yet to express gratitude about. Realising that The Giving Tree is about the relationship between parent and child was quite honestly nothing short of mind blowing. I felt like I had unlocked a secret level in a video game that brought me closer to understanding the entire plot and my purpose in it.
After that moment, I started to interpret each page of the book in a completely different light. Now it made sense why the boy loved the tree so damn much, especially as a kid. Like a kid with their parent, when they're little they're obsessed with you. And as they get older, their interest in the parent or caretaker wanes as they become more interested in other people and experiences. And at the end of the book, on the last page where the boy (who is now an old man) comes back to sit on the stump-- now I see that as a representation of how the bond between parent and child is always there, even if the tree isn't. No matter how estranged or fucked up a bond can get, the parent-child relationship will always be the most prominent in anyone's life. And that is enough to make anyone weep.
These days, with there being such a huge emphasis on boundaries and self-care and practicing saying no, "The Giving Tree" is sometimes seen as "problematic" (cue a big eye roll from me). I came across an Instagram account last year sharing someone's work who had rewritten the story so the tree exercises saying "No" more and my initial thought was,"The audacity and entitlement of some people!" Seriously though, to think you have the right to alter a classic and someone else's work simply because you don't like or understand the meaning. SMDH.
If you too have been eluded by the meaning behind "The Giving Tree," I truly hope this has helped. Even if you don't completely agree with this interpretation or if that isn't your experience with your own caretaker, I think perhaps Shel was onto something more here than writing about a tree who apparently had no backbone. And if it does happen to be that I temporarily tapped into a shared cosmic space with Shel where the true meaning of the story was revealed (lol)... can you believe being able to pack so much depth into 27 pages?!? If so, Shel was seriously on a different level-- we just needed to catch up.
Becoming a parent unlocks a lot of potential within us-- it has the power to wake us up from sleep walking through life. The love for our children is unlike any other love; it enables us to access previously untapped powers of endurance, emotional depth, strength & empathy. I believe "The Giving Tree" touches on all of that and so much more. It is well and truly one of the greatest children's books ever written and I will continue reading it to my daughter and find meaning in its original text time and time again. I hope you do too.