I loved reading as a child and have done my best to diversify the kinds of books my boys read in order to instill in them a curiosity towards the world around them, gain an understanding of and compassion towards people, places, and things they haven’t yet experienced personally, and encourage them to be creative and imaginative. I do my best to add classic children’s books to their growing stockpile, so when I found a copy of The Giving Tree on a recent Goodwill book hunt, I decided to give it a try. I didn’t grow up reading Shel Silverstein and had never read The Giving Tree before. A few days later, when my youngest son Noah, who is 4, asked me to read the book to him and his brother at bedtime, I was excited to see what it was all about.
I had two pajama-clad sleepy boys sitting on my lap excited to read our new book together in the rocking chair. Things were going pretty well until I got to the part where the boy cut the tree’s branches off in order to build himself a house. My oldest son Isaac, who is 6, was upset that the boy would do that to the tree who loved him, but he was even more upset that in the book it said the tree was happy when he took her branches for himself.
If you are familiar with the story, you know the boy’s selfish requests only gets worse from there until the tree is nothing more than a stump with an ungrateful old man sitting on it. By the end of the book, both of my boys were upset. They didn’t like what the boy had done to the tree and were especially confused as to why the book would say the tree was happy when the poor tree was so clearly being mistreated.
My sweet Isaac had decided to take things into his own hands and do some edits to The Giving Tree in order to make it 'less sad and more true.'
As we talked about how they were feeling about the book, I told them that sometimes we read books that may not make us happy, but they make us think and that is equally as important. I gave each of them big hugs and told them how proud I was of their big hearts and ability to recognize the ways the boy in the story was being selfish and also how the tree should not have been happy after being mistreated. Even after our chat, Isaac was still upset as he climbed into bed that night, so I sang them extra songs and told them an extra story.
A few days later, I saw Isaac working on something at his desk and asked him what he was doing. He told me he was “fixing something.” After he was done, he showed me what he had “fixed.” My sweet Isaac had decided to take things into his own hands and do some edits to The Giving Tree in order to make it “less sad and more true.”
Noah was so happy to see the tree alive again at the end and gave his big brother a big standing ovation.
On the front cover, he had renamed the book "The Giving Tree 2” and wrote his name at the bottom under “edited version” so everyone would know who changed it. Isaac had crossed out all the “happys” in the book and decided to write in how the tree got progressively sadder as the boy continued to mistreat it. He also didn’t like the ending of the book where the tree was a stump with the boy sitting on it, so he redrew the tree on the last blank page in the book and wrote, “And the tree came back alive.”
I was so overwhelmed with pride in what he had done, but I took a quick moment to remind Isaac that drawing in our books isn’t something we should make a habit of. After that, I told him how proud I was of him for understanding how important it is to be kind and loving and how he recognized how very sad it is when we act selfishly and cause pain.
He said to me, “Mommy, that book was lying to us by telling us the tree was happy when the boy was mean to it because I know that the tree was sad and wanted to live instead of giving all of her stuff away and be a stump.”
I gave him a hug and told him how much I loved his perspective and how very right he was about the tree wanting to be loved in return instead of be mistreated. He hugged me back and told me he wants to “write books that teach love and not mean things.” I told him I did too, and that I knew he would do that one day and it would help change the world for the better.
Isaac was excited to show his edits to his little brother, so we found Noah and Isaac read the edited version to both of us. Noah was so happy to see the tree alive again at the end and gave his big brother a big standing ovation. Noah said, “That boy shouldn’t have been mean to that tree and that tree should have said NO when he was being so rude!”
Sometimes as parents, we aren’t sure if our kids fully understand what we are trying to teach them about being kind and caring people. Parents find themselves repeating and reminding and sometimes practically begging our kids to be kind, share, be gentle, and include others, but we don’t always feel like the message is getting through.
When I saw how upset my kids were over this book, I knew they were getting it. They may not be applying their knowledge perfectly quite yet, but it is normal for 4- and 6-year-olds to be self-focused at this stage of development. The most important thing is that they are understanding, recognizing, and practicing empathy, compassion, and kindness and that makes me incredibly proud and a whole lot of relieved.
I think one of the reasons the boys knew right away the boy in the story was mistreating the tree is that they know that when they ask me for something rudely or ask me to do things I am not comfortable with, I say no. They also know that mommy has boundaries. I have been very careful to make self care and healthy boundaries a top priority so that I can be healthy, which in turn allows me to be a better mom and person all around.
We have always told our boys that the most important thing is for them to be kind and loving to themselves and others. My husband and I do our best to live in such a way that our boys see kindness and love modeled for them in healthy ways. We want them to understand that kindness doesn’t mean giving yourself away to make someone else happy until you are nothing but a stump. Self sacrifice is important, and we want our boys to understand this as well, but it isn’t a way of life. We want them to know that when you love yourself, you set boundaries that allow for authentic relationships built on mutual respect and honor. We have to be able to love ourselves well in order to have what we need to love others well, and having healthy boundaries and space for self care is an important part of it. When you love yourself enough to say no when someone is mistreating you, then you will be much more likely to love others enough to not mistreat them.
Books help us see the truth, one way or another. I am glad Shel Silverstein wrote The Giving Tree the way he did because it gave me an opportunity to talk to my kids about how we can change our stories at any time. When we find ourselves living in a world that keeps asking us to chop ourselves up, we can say no. When we find ourselves living in selfish ways and not thinking about how our decisions affect others, we can decide to live lives of kindness.
We can’t control what others do around us, but we can control the way we want to live our story. We can control how we treat others and how we allow others to treat us. And some of the best teachers we will ever find in our lives are children. We worry about teaching them, when we really need to be listening more and allowing them to teach us.