While some say The Giving Tree is a tale of selfless love, others find the story reads more like a cautionary tale about what happens when we give too much and ask too little of the ones we love.
Author Topher Payne created a free printable rewrite to teach children and adults alike that healthy relationships do, in fact, have boundaries. The printable can be found on Payne's website, and bonus, the author is using the free rewrite to raise awareness and funds for a great cause --- the Artists of Atlanta COVID Relief Fund. If you enjoy the rewrite as much as we do, please consider a donation.
Boundaries And The (Co-Dependent) Giving Tree
If you are not familiar with the original story of The Giving Tree, allow us to recap the story for you. A young boy befriends a tree and spends his days eating apples, sitting in the tree’s shade, and playing games like hide-and-seek and the king of the forest.
Sounds nice, right?
But as the boy ages, things get interesting. The boy (turned young man, then middle-aged man, then old man) only returns to visit the tree when he finds himself in need of something:
- The boy returns to ask for money, and the tree gives her apples.
- The boy returns to ask for a house, and the tree gives her branches.
- The boy returns to ask for a boat and the tree sacrifices everything she has, giving her trunk and reducing herself to a stump so that the boy, now an old man, might have a place to sit.
And while this might sound like a romanticized version of unconditional love at first glance, Payne's rewrite begs the question... does The Giving Tree embody a healthy sort of "true love" - the sort of love we want to teach our children - or does The Giving Tree lack a healthy sense of self-love and boundaries?
When summarizing the story in a rare interview, author Shel Silverstein said his book was about “a relationship between two people; one gives and the other takes”... and we would agree. The Giving Tree is a story of what can happen in relationships that lack clear, firm, and respectful boundaries.
When Boundaries Are Lacking
When boundaries are missing, it's easy for relationships to become imbalanced. Codependency is defined as an over-reliance on another person to the point that one's own identity is lost. One person focuses on another's needs and desires so much so that, as in the case of The Giving Tree, their own needs, goals, and interests go suppressed and/or ignored.
All love begins with self-love, which is one of five vital components that make up a person's emotional intelligence. And this self-love includes learning how to set and maintain healthy boundaries in both the form of self-care and our interactions with others.
If you are new to setting healthy boundaries, it can feel challenging to identify the differences that exist between interdependent relationships (like the one Payne details in her rewrite) and codependent relationships (like The Giving Tree). Here are four key elements to look for in a healthy relationship:
- Self-care is love.
We sometimes feel that we must give and give and give to the point of depletion in order to show our love -- filling another’s cup even if that means our own cup is running dry. This sort of guilt is a red flag when it comes to healthy boundaries as it is often a crutch found in co-dependent relationships.
When we put the care of others before the care of ourselves, we can get run over or taken advantage of, but when we learn to release the guilt and to love ourselves for who we truly are (despite what we may do or not do for others...), we can better communicate our boundaries and hold to them.
- Giving is different than sacrificing.
Giving is about helping others without harming yourself, meaning that you prioritize your needs along with the needs of others. Setting healthy boundaries is an important part of giving because it ensures you stay full, and when we are full, we have something left to give.
- You are in charge of you.
Our boundaries respect the line that marks off "you and me." People with weak boundaries often absorb other's feelings, yet we cannot make someone feel any emotion or make them do any particular action. Our responsibility is solely on our own feelings, thoughts, words, and behaviors. Knowing this offers courage to strengthen boundaries and decrease codependency.
- Boundaries are essential.
In a codependent relationship, we either don’t set boundaries or we don’t enforce them when they are crossed. A lack of consistent expectations in our relationships can make it appear as if we don’t care how we are treated. Rather, the use of clear, firm, and consistent boundaries not only nurtures self-love but it helps others practice what it means to be in a healthy, balanced relationship as well.
Payne’s rewrite offers children and adults alike a narrative where mutual respect gives way to real and lasting happiness. And in the end of the rewrite, the tree is happy and the boy, given clear, firm, and loving limits, is happy as well.
I can envision the re-imagined Giving Tree saying, "love hath boundaries" to his friend, the boy, as he returns, again and again, to ask for favors.
Yes, yes, it certainly does.