02/17/2015 05:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Thanks But No Thanks, Shel Silverstein

Well, well, well thank you Shel Silverstein.

Family reading time ran amok tonight and I blame you.

It started out so innocently, though.

I just had to pick the books tonight, I couldn't bring myself to read aloud any more Curious George (Why are you so STUPID Man in The Yellow Hat? Why the heck DO YOU KEEP BRINGING HIM TO THE FIRE STATION? DON'T YOU LEARN? He truly IS a bad little monkey, dude!).

The green dust jacket was calling my name from the bookshelf: "Remember me, Nicole? We are old friends, arent we?"

Of course I remember you, old friend, I thought as I touched its firm binding.

"Then you must take me down, you must read me again. Your children will love me. Read me. You will all be happy."

Well of course I will read you, old friend. Yes, yes. We will all be happy. You have many lessons to share, I remember them well.

And so my old book and I went down the stairs and curled up with three children under a blanket on the couch.

The Giving Tree I read loudly, so excited to share this special book from my childhoodwith them.

Within four minutes, two children were sobbing uncontrollably and one (the smallest one) had run away to escape the mayhem I had created.

My 7-year-old son was actually moaning "WHY WHY WHY WHY?" over and over again.
My older daughter just kept repeating "The selfish boy!" while shaking her head, sounding dangerously off kilter.

It was bewildering. A great big letdown. Sort of like every family holiday meal except no one spilled anything and I hadn't spent $80 planning the whole shindig out.

I could not understand. It was sad, sure. But it was happy! Wasn't it? I tried desperately to re-frame the story for them.

"The tree is GLAD to help the boy out! He is the boy's friend. They grow old together. They love each other." I said, pointing to the last page. "Look! They are FRIENDS!"

My son, my Frankie, my sweet son, who at 7 years old still crawls in my lap every day, tears the book from my hand and literally begins punching the picture of Shel Silverstein on the back cover of the book repeatedly.

"Why did you read us that?" asks my daughter hysterically, tears streaming down her face.
"What kind of weirdo writes a book like that?" asks Frankie.

Weirdo? That's Shel Silverstein you're talking about, boy. Author of my youth!

I have almost no words for them. Their reaction is so simplistic, all black or white. They are sad because the tree gives everything to the boy. That the tree is left with nothing, that he gives and gives, with no real gift in return. And then, unfailingly, because time... and because life, years pass, love and friendship wane and wax.

And then they both grow fragile and they both grow old. End of story.

I want to laugh at the childish hysteria, but something clenchingly begins to grab at me too. I had forgotten how poignant The Giving Tree really was; It's message is beautiful. It's beautiful, right?

But the meaning diverges down a road that even I can't comprehend, after I see my children's reaction.

Maybe it's lack of sleep or my place, now, as a mother -- but the book suddenly seems so confusing to me. I have questions and no one to answer them.

Is The Tree supposed to be God? Why does he -- how can he -- give so much to the boy and take nothing? Is this what I should be doing, as a parent -- give and give and give and ask for naught? Is the lesson here that it should be enough just to give, that to make someone else happy should alone be satisfying sometimes? Or that we can take and take and still not find satisfaction?

This hardcover book, that sat on my own bookshelf without asking any questions for three long decades, made me suddenly think and wonder and wonder and think.

Could I give so much without needing affirmation? Am I The Tree? Am I The Boy?

I don't know. I don't know. Damn it all, I DON'T KNOW!

But my children knew.

They knew it was wrong to keep asking without offering in return. They thought The Boy was selfish, they thought he was careless. They were heartbroken over the lost things, The Tree's sad remains.

Maybe I was The Tree to them, maybe they were The Boy. Maybe they cried for the impossible, far off promise that endings were inevitable, that in the end, all we are reduced to, judged by, are the people we love and the people who loved us.

I don't get it. But even though they can't put it into words, my children do.

It took an hour to calm them down and as I sat on the couch once they were in bed, I realized there is one thing I DO understand now. I'm previewing the content again of all my childhood books before I read them to my children from now on.

I apparently have forgotten to remember that when you are a child some things actually make MORE sense to you.

Maybe we should take our cues from our children. Maybe it really is all much more simple than we want to make it.

If it feels sad, maybe it is sad. If it seems unfair, maybe it is unfair. If he seems selfish, maybe he is selfish.

If we want to cry, maybe we should just cry.

It seems that the older we get, the less we understand.


Here's the link to the original spoken book on YouTube. Judge for yourself.