The Giving Tree: To Laugh or to Cry


The Giving Tree authored by Shel Silverstein makes me cringe.

Other people adore the book.

Yes, there is an open dichotomy, a real dichotomy in the book based on whether the reader focuses on the tree or the child.

I’ll try to describe the story impartially, although its nearly impossible because of the strong feelings it elicits in me.  I am berating myself as I write these words because I should look at the book as half full, rather than half empty, but it is difficult, really difficult for me.

The book describes how a child plays with a tree by using its leaves to make a crown, climbing its trunk and swinging on its branches.  As the child grows into a man, he returns every so often wanting more from the tree.  The tree responds in kind.  Until, the very end, the tree ends up as a mere stump.

It is quite lovely, seeing how the tree gives of itself so selflessly for the benefit of the man.

I cringe at how the man returns each time wanting more of the tree, in my opinion, cannibalizing the tree to its very stump.

True, no one has forced the tree to be so giving.

Also true, giving makes the tree so very happy, that each time the child/man returns and asks for more, one can say that he is making the tree so very happy being able to give the man what he needs, why analyze any further.

Well, let’s understand that it is a child’s book.  It teaches a child that he can trust another for his wants and needs.  But the child/man’s request doesn’t differentiate between wants and needs, indeed the author writes that the boy grew older, and the tree was often alone.  That it is the essence of this book.  The tree is lonely and what will it give of itself so that the boy would visit it, or visit it more often.

Does the boy have an ethical duty to protect the tree, where the tree is not protecting itself.  Our first thought is, the other person is an adult and makes his own boundaries, surely asking will not overstep a boundary because each person is permitted to set his own boundaries that are acceptable to him.  Yet, when does our conscience or should our consciences every kick in to play another person’s role for him.

Why do I ask this question, because I have to answer this question at least once a week.  Because I teach elder law and elder abuse, and it is quite difficult to draw the line between what an older person can give, and when the person is giving too much for the sake of having someone visit him or care for him.

Let me give you an example.  There were two cases, Campbell and Burke, where aides caring for elderly patients convinced those patients to marry them, so that they could get green cards and inherit their estates.  What was the conversation between the elderly person and the aide?

Ms. Aide:  Mr. Smith, I know that I have cared for you for two years, and I’ve grown very fond of you.  If you don’t marry me, I will be deported.


Ms. Aide #2:  Mr. Smith, if you don’t marry me, I am afraid I will have to leave you, and you will have to find a new aide [ who doesn’t know how to cook and care for you like I do].

Mr. Smith:  I cant lose you, you have been so very kind to me over these years, I know that you care for me, more than my own children/relatives do, of course I don’t want to lose you, I want to marry you.

Can the elderly, under threat by an aide of abandonment, agree to marry said aide?

The court answered:  The elderly, even though mentally competent, are under duress when someone who has influence over him sends subtle threats of coercion to induce the elderly to act.

It is not only an aide who has this subliminal ability to unduly coerce, but children, and others who will induce an elderly person to marry him, maybe in a seat of power as to unduly influence the elderly to act.  Google Celeste Holmes and Frank Basile, a much younger man, who influenced Ms. Holm to marry him.

It is a difficult conundrum.

In this book, admittedly my prism is based on years of experiencing elder abuse.  There is a subtle agreement between the tree and the boy “if you come, I will give you.”  In truth, the boy/man is under no mandatory requirement to visit the tree.  He has the absolute right to be selfish and visit the tree for the sole purpose of taking from it.  It is at liberty to say “im sorry I have nothing for you,” but then it is subject to the real “threat” of the boy’s never returning, which risk, it appears it does not want to take.

Says the aide/child/friend/rabbi to the elderly, give me what I want, or I will leave and never return.  So the elderly shower upon them marriage/money/homes/assets/watches.  Are these gifts compelled?  Do these people have the absolute right not to visit or return?  Whether the words are actually said, or whether it is strongly understood, I submit that the taker’s conscience must kick in at some point and say “what I am asking is too much,” and back down as an ethical consideration for the elderly person’s perception that his failure to give will mean a loss of relationship with the taker which is perceived real by the elderly person.

I am biased by my experiences.  It is really difficult to determine when there is elder abuse, coercion and duress.  There has to be an awareness by attorneys, doctors and social workers of the subtleties of this abuse.

It is lovely that the tree gives her all to the boy/man, in this day and age, when there is a great deal of talk about children feeling entitled, it is important to set boundaries by the giver, but more importantly to teach the taker when taking is too much, it starts when they are young and want the entire bag of candy that is sitting on a table.  I continue to fight for my clients whose children feel they can take a $1,000/day from their parents’ bank accounts because they took the day off from work to bring mom or dad to the doctor.

It’s an important dialogue that has to be discussed by parent/child and those who work with the elderly.


Lenore has been practicing Trust and estate/elder for 25 years.  She has her LLM masters in Taxation, and has offices in New York and New Jersey.  You can contact her via telephone at (516)569-4671 or by email at


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