Childhood Eden

June 2024
Ben Shragge

The Garden of Eden story, at its most basic level, is a story of childhood. As we mature and digest the knowledge of good and evil, we are all a little Adam and Eve, repeating humanity’s first chapter in miniature. The loss of innocence that the story describes is universal; but so is the opportunity to nurture, protect, and guide that innocence when it reappears in our children. As the parent of a two-year-old girl, I watch scenes from the garden play out in modern form each day.

In the Garden of Eden, Adam, the first man, “gave names to all the cattle and to the birds of the sky and to all the wild beasts.” In the nursery, my first-born daughter names the cows, owls, and zebras in her books. Of course, she’s not inventing their names like Adam, but her excitement at repeating them is a throwback to the dawn of language. With every pronouncement of a familiar word, she brings order and meaning to her universe. And when she points out the planets on a map of the solar system and says “ball,” or looks at patterned butterfly wings and says “flowers,” I share in the wonder and accidental poetry of learning to name.

During their time in paradise, Adam and Eve “were both naked, yet they felt no shame.” When my daughter is looking up at me as I change her diaper, the lack of shame is all too evident in her casual expression. Emotionally, too, she is unconcealed and uninhibited, whether in love or in anger. When, apropos of nothing, she hugs my legs and exclaims “Papa!” then I know it’s from the heart. And when she throws a tantrum in a restaurant, screaming uncontrollably and thrashing in her high chair, it doesn’t matter what onlookers think or decorum dictates. She will express her emotion until a new one takes its place. Nothing stands between her feelings and the world.

Of course, innocence has a built-in expiration date, commonly called maturity. As the climax of the Biblical story reminds us, we can’t live in Eden forever. After giving in to temptation and eating of the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve “realized they were naked; so they sewed together fig leaves and made themselves loincloths.” They become self-conscious and, newly aware that they’ve done wrong, attempt to hide from their divine parent. God says that they have “become like one of us, knowing good and evil” and banishes them from the garden to a world of enmity and hard labor: our own. As much as my daughter’s own private world is Edenic, the wider world to which we are all inevitably exiled surrounds it on each side.

Sometimes, despite the efforts and intentions of parents, that wider world creeps into childhood early. While my daughter is too young to know good and evil, let alone to cover herself in shame, there have been signs that an end to innocence is coming. Recently at a children’s museum, she walked over to a group of older children interacting with an exhibit. I let her approach, naively expecting that they would welcome her, only to watch them shove her aside. Within her wounded look was perhaps an early premonition that all is not good; that there is evil in this world, that there are those who love you and those who don’t, and that you must learn to distinguish between the two. It is a hard and necessary lesson, but one I hope can wait until she’s older for her to fully learn.

Her hurt expression was also a painful reminder to me as a parent. My responsibility is both to protect her little Eden and to start preparing her for that big, exciting, but dangerous world outside the garden. As a glance at today’s headlines (no matter what day it is) reminds us, we’re not living in paradise. And even among children, there is thoughtless cruelty: shoving, snatching, shaming, bullying. I need to teach my daughter to call serpents as well as farm animals by their names; to stay open to others, but also, at times, to put her guard up; to live wisely and choose righteously in a world of both good and evil. And, by so choosing, to make the world a little more like the Eden an innocent child imagines it to be.