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Silverstein, Shel – The Giving Tree

Silverstein, Shel – The Giving Tree

Harper Collins




This is the story of a tree and her enduring love for a little boy. When the boy is young he wiles his time playing on, around, and with the tree. As time passes he visits the tree less frequently until eventually he stays away many years at a time, and in his absence the tree is sad. The boy's concerns become increasingly worldly as he grows up, and the few times he does in fact return to the tree he is not at all interested in eating her apples or swinging from her branches. He has wants, needs…and the tree tries her best to make him happy by giving him all that she has to offer. At first she delights in giving to the boy, but there comes a time when she is only "happy…but not really." In the end the boy returns, too old to want or need anything more than a "quiet place to sit and rest." At last the tree is able to give him exactly what he wants and the two are happy once more.


Discussion Questions:


1.     The tree loves the little boy.

  1. The tree did not say "I love you" to the boy. Sometimes people say "I love you" to their friends, children, husbands, wives, or even to their pet cats and dogs. How do you know your mom loves you even when she doesn't say so? Do you feel better when she does?
  1. If someone gives you a present on your birthday does that mean that the person loves you? How do you know that someone loves you?
  1. People often say they love their pet cats or dogs.You might rub your cat's belly or scratch behind your dog's ears or give your pets special food because you love them. Can pets love people back? Does your cat purr because she loves you?


2.     The tree shows her love for the boy by always trying to make him happy.

A.  What shows that the boy loves the tree?

  1. Does the boy ever thank the tree? If so, how? If not, why not?
  1. Imagine that someone in your neighborhood has a large swimming pool and it happens to be a really hot summer. Many of the neighborhood children have figured out that if they play with him on a hot day they also get to swim in his family's pool. Are these kid really his friends? What would you do?


3.     When the boy goes away the tree is sad.

  1. Does she love the boy any less when he is not there? What if he had never come back? Can you love someone even when they're not around?
  1. Why does the tree love the boy in the first place?


4.     Every time the tree gives something to the boy she doesn't ask for anything in return.

  1. When the tree gives to the boy she is happy. Are you happier when it's your birthday and people are giving you presents or when it's your friend's birthday and you are giving presents? Why?
  1. Did the tree want anything? What? Did she get what she wanted? 
  1. A friend forgets her lunch money so you lend her some of yours. What if she also forgets to pay you back? Will you still be friends with her? Why or why not?



5.     The tree gives the boy so much that in the end she has nothing left but a stump.

  1. The tree gives her apples, branches, and eventually her entire trunk to the boy. What else does she give him?
  1. If you don't have any money to buy your friend a gift on her birthday, what else could you give her?
  1. Would you rather get a handmade gift or one bought in a store? Why?
  1. Imagine that there is a spoiled rich kid in your neighborhood who has everything he could possibly want. What would you give him?
  1. Think of the different kinds of things you can give to someone. Can you give your hair, your health, your strength, or your right arm? If you could, would you want to?

A.   Do trees give you anything? What? Do you give anything to trees?


6.     The first time the boy comes back he wants money. Did money make him happy? How do you know?

  1. Imagine that you have just found a suitcase full of money. With this money you will be the richest person in your town. Will you keep it? Why or why not?
  1. If you take the money, what would you do with it? Would you be happy?
  1. If money could make you happy, how much would it take? One thousand dollars? One million? One billion? Could you ever have enough?
  1. With your riches you will be able to buy many things. Do the things you buy make you happy? Can they sometimes? When? What if you couldn't spend the money? What could you do with it?
  1. There are many people in your neighborhood who need things. Will you give some of your money away to help them? How much of it would you give away? Would you give it to your friends first? Would you only give it to your friends?


7.     As the boy grows older he visits the tree less and less.

A.   The boy tells the tree that he is "too big to climb and play." Can adults swing on tree branches? Are there some things adults do that kids don't do? Are there things that "big kids" do that "little kids" don't do? Can a little kid do a big kid thing? Why or why not? Can kids do "adult things"? Why or why not?

  1. When the boy returns the second time he says that he is "too busy to climb trees." Why is he busy? What is he busy doing? Is he happy?
  1. Imagine that you can do anything you want. What would you do? Would this make you happy?


8.     When the boy comes back the third time he says that he is "too old and sad to play."

  1. Why do you think he is sad?
  1. When one of your friends is sad, what do you do? Are you able to make your friend happy again? If so, why? How? If not, why not? Can someone be sad all the time?
  1. The boy asks the tree for a boat so he can sail far away. Why do you think he wants to leave?
  1. Have you ever felt like you wanted to go far, far away? Where would you go? Why would you leave? What would you want to get away from?


9.     After the boy cuts down her trunk, the tree is "happy…but not really."

  1. Have you ever been happy and sad at the same time? Why were you happy? Why were you sad? 
  1. Imagine that you are a tree and you just gave away your entire trunk and are now only a stump. How would you feel? Would you feel better if it made someone else happy? What if it didn't?


10.   When the boy comes back at the end of the story he is too weak, too old and too tired to do what he did when he was young  To the tree he says, "I don't need very much now…just a quiet place to sit and rest.".

  1. Did the boy need all of the things he wanted? The money? The house? The Boat?
  1. Have you ever wanted a snack when you weren't hungry? Have you ever wanted a different pair of shoes when you already had a good one? How about clothing? Or toys? Why did you want more?
  1. Have you ever had to do something you didn't want to do? Have you ever needed something you didn't want? Medicine? Braces? Help with homework?
  1. When the boy sits down to rest the tree is happy. Why is she happy? Is the boy happy?
  1. Imagine that you are the boy. What would it take to make you happy? Would you want to be happy? Why is happiness important? Can we ever be truly happy?
  1. Imagine you are a tree. What do you think would make you happy? Why? Is a tree's happiness as important as a human's? Why or why not?



Guidelines For Discussion



            Silverstein's tale is a grab bag of big philosophical themes. The questions are designed to help kids think about things they may already take for granted – love, for example, and how it is (or is not) expressed.


Love – Questions 1,2,3


            What is love? Is there some universal standard? In other words, do we know it when we see it? The tree loves the boy, and we can see that she acts in a way consistent with her love; she is unconditionally accepting, and unconditionally generous to the point of giving herself away almost completely! We are told in the beginning that the boy loves the tree, but what does he do to demonstrate this? There is an almost total lack of reciprocity on his part; he is always taking, and the tree is always giving.  Once the boy stops climbing and playing with the tree, he only comes back when he wants something, and never once does he show appreciation for the tree's generosity.


Gifts/Giving – Questions 4 & 5



            One of the hallmarks of self-less love is constant giving, materially or otherwise.  The tree is an example of a completely self-less individual, concerned primarily with the happiness of another. She goes to extreme lengths to give the boy what he wants, even though he does not reciprocate.

            Gifts can come in many forms, but it is important to separate what a person gives from how a person gives – i.e. the spirit in which a person gives, whether charitable or grudging, self-less or selfish. And in the present age, material things are so easy to come by that the gift itself is worth less and less. Indeed, a handmade gift would represent a significant investment of time and effort – love in action? – that would add a measure of intangible value not to be found in store-bought items. The difference between handwritten cards and Hallmark ones, and even handwritten letters vs. email are other present-day examples.

            Thinking about what kinds of things can be given is a good way to take the concept of gifts/giving out of a strictly material frame of reference. It is clear that people can give just about anything; the more personal (hence rarer), the more closely tied to the person's feelings and the more valuable.

            Relationships that involve giving and receiving need not be confined to person-to-person configurations, but could exist between groups (e.g. towns, states, nations, corporations, etc.) as well as between people and the natural world (e.g. trees). Often these relationships are exploitative to an extreme degree, and there are at present many major environmental problems that are the result of humans overstepping the bounds of moderation with respect to their natural surroundings; pollution, over-development, over-fishing, deforestation, global warming, extinction of animals, destruction of habitat, etc. all represent an unbalanced and abusive relationship with nature that amounts to wholesale taking with little giving. Things do not have to be this way, but if people are not thinking about the dynamics of their relationships with nature, then there is no way for such problems to be addressed and hopefully solved.


Happiness – Questions 6, 7, 8, 9, 10


            What is happiness and how do we achieve it? There is no more philosophical a question than this. While people may act according to momentary whims, their way of life is likely bound up with some sort of answer to this question. Indeed, no religion or philosophical system would be complete without an account of happiness.

            If happiness is an end, then there must be means – but what? Money? Material things? Security? Family? Whatever it is, it does not look as if the boy ever really finds it. Perhaps this is because he sought each thing – e.g. money – as an end in itself, as if his happiness were inextricably tied to it. Why is it that these things did not make him happy? Is there some inherent inadequacy on the part of, say, money, that leaves its pursuers short of happiness? Or is it some wrong-headedness on the part of the pursuers?

            We want/desire what we think might make us happy. Interestingly, there does not seem to be a correlation between what we want and what is good for us, either in the short or the long term; in other words, just because something is good for does not mean we want it, and wanting something does not mean that it is good for us.

            Our wants/desires change. What we want when we are children is often far from what we want when we are adults. But there are value judgements here. Indeed, the whole concept of "growing up" is bound up with the idea that there are some desires that need to be shuffled off with age. Are these judgements sound? In the case of the boy, why is his climbing and playing, his companionship with the tree, less valued in society than the largely material concerns of his later years?