The Giving Tree
By Shel Silverstein, Harper Collins
Once there was a tree... and she loved a little boy. Every day the boy would come to the tree to eat her apples, swing from her branches, or slide down her trunk... and the tree was happy. But as the boy grew older he began to want more from the tree, and the tree gave and gave.
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
by Thomas Wartenberg, edited by Jayme Johnson
The question of the appropriate relationship that human beings should have with nature is raised by the story of a young boy and a tree in Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. In it, the boy’s relationship with the tree undergoes a series of transformations. Each of the stages of this transformation process represents simultaneously a stage of human growth, and what kinds of resources are available to fulfill the human needs and desires of that stage.
For a long time, following the lead of the Bible, philosophers believed that humans had dominion over the natural world. What that meant was that human beings could do with natural objects whatever suited their purposes. All such things were simply for us. But especially in the latter half of the twentieth century, as the devastating results of such an assumption have become more and more apparent, philosophers are attempting to articulate what they see as a more appropriate human relationship with the natural world. One popular suggestions is that we should regard ourselves as stewards of a world that ought to remain much as it is for our descendants. The exact nature of such a stewarding relationship has been much debated, as has the question of whether the natural world itself has rights that humans ought to respect.
Questions about the appropriate way for humans to treat natural objects are cogently presented by The Giving Tree. Your goal in discussing this book with children is to get them to think about how we should treat natural objects by focusing on how the relationship that the boy has with the tree at different stages of his life changes. At first, although the boy uses the tree and its various features as a source for his enjoyment, he does so in a way that does not harm the tree. We might characterize the relationship this way: The young boy respects the tree and its integrity. But in the three next stages – that is, as a young man, a young adult, and an adult – the boy’s relationship takes a more and more destructive course as he first takes the tree’s apples to sell, then cuts down the tree’s branches, and finally takes its trunk. When the boy returns as an old man, he takes up a less invasive relationship with what remains of the tree – its trunk – and simply sits on it and rests. By discussing precisely what type of relationship with the tree is appropriate and why, the children will begin to address fundamental questions in environmental ethics.
Questions for Philosophical Discussion
Giving and Altruism
The tree keeps on giving to the boy until it has nothing left to give. The boy on the other hand does not give anything to the tree.
The Nature of Giving and Gifts
In the story, the tree gives the boy many gifts.
The Nature of Love
Early in the book, we read that the tree loved the boy.
The tree is not really happy after giving the boy her trunk.