Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree still helps me have healthy relationships, even as an adult
September 25th is Shel Silverstein’s birthday. Here, a writer reflects on Silverstein’s classic children’s book The Giving Tree, and how the lessons within that story have stayed with her.
I opened the green cover. The scent of libraries and thick printed paper rose up from its pages, revealing a delicately drawn tree and a young boy. I loved the illustrations in The Giving Tree, and would run my fingers around the lines of the leaves and the simple type on each page, never fully understanding why it made me both happy and sad. As if I could only reach an understanding of these earnest childhood emotions in some alternate realm where I was older, or wiser.
Long after my girlhood spent regularly reading The Giving Tree ended, the story continued to haunt me.
In my romantic relationships as an adult, I’ve often thought back to its pages and wondered—was I the tree, who gave my all, even if I expected nothing in return, even if it exhausted me? Or was I the boy, taking and taking from the people who care for me, never realizing how it affected them?
Fundamentally, even as a child, I knew The Giving Tree symbolized a kind of imbalance in human relationships. Even then, it felt unfair to me. I wondered if my discomfort was my inability to understand the story. Maybe there was another book about the tree, or about things that had occurred separately from this specific story. Perhaps the boy actually had offered the tree something in return. Maybe he did often come back to mulch the base of the tree, or water it during a drought. Maybe it was understood that there was a balance between the boy and the tree—it just existed outside of its pages.
Of course, there’s beauty in dependence, in the slow give and take of relationships, and in unconditional love—but there’s also danger in compulsive giving without boundaries. Balance lies in giving freely while taking in need. I re-read The Giving Tree and think about my continually giving mother, who was often frustrated that she worked, cleaned the house, and did all the shopping, cooking, grocery shopping, ironing, and laundry in our family. She was the personification of the tree, and she was not happy about it.
The Giving Tree is a lesson in setting boundaries.
It stresses the importance of finding balance, and notes the dangers of self-centeredness. For all its simplicity—it is a children’s book after all—The Giving Tree is still a warning, regardless of how the story ends. Because love isn’t just about giving; it’s about mutual support. To me, The Giving Tree warns us against toxic dependence.
I still think about that childhood book sometimes, remembering the way it felt in my hands. But mostly I remember the uncomfortable truth hidden inside, that love doesn’t take everything from you. And asking everything of someone is not love.