Leaving Eden: A Lesson for Parents


The account of Adam and Eve can help illuminate for parents the challenges children face as they grow into the mature use of agency.

One of the reasons we read the scriptures is that they are full of lessons for our lives. Like Nephi, we can “liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning.” (1 Ne. 19:23.) For example, we learn about obedience from the account of Abraham, Isaac, and the ram in the thicket; and we discover courage and faith through the story of David’s victory over Goliath. Not surprisingly, there are lessons—particularly for parents—to be learned from the account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. One of the most important of those lessons is how to help children through the difficult process of growing up.

The account of Adam and Eve, like all scripture, can be read on more than one level. There is, of course, the literal story of our first parents. Then there are some universal and personal applications we can draw from the story. It is in reading the story at this level that we discover its lessons for parents. Most children begin life in a sort of family Eden and then, like Adam and Eve, undergo the pain of separation from their parents as they mature and assume more and more responsibility for their lives. Reading the account from this perspective can help us better understand how many teenagers feel as they begin choosing—sometimes wrongly—not only between good and evil, but between good and better.

Of course, every analogy has its limits, and I have tried not to draw from this account, powerful as it is, more than it holds. The most important limitation of the account is that the narrative is told mostly from the point of view of the children—Adam and Eve. Thus, the account can help sensitize parents to adolescents’ problems even though the account is not a complete manual on good parenting. Still, if we keep in mind the limitations of the metaphor, it can help us understand a central problem of adolescence.

The Eden of Childhood

Let us, then, compare the account of Adam and Eve with childhood. We read in Genesis that God created the world, with a beautiful garden in Eden full of “every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food.” (Gen. 2:9.) Similarly, most parents try to provide a safe environment in which their children’s every physical need is addressed.

Next, God created man and woman in His own image. (See Gen. 1:27.) Children’s physical bodies are created by parents who may seem to their children to be as wise and influential as God does to man. Adam and Eve were at first both as innocent and unself-conscious as children. (See Gen. 2:25.) God was very generous with his children, allowing them to eat of almost everything in the Garden. Likewise, most newborns have only to cry to bring their parents rushing to their sides.

Choices and Consequences

Next, we come to a crucial point. God gave Adam and Eve the opportunity to make choices. One of those choices was whether to partake of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But that choice, God told them, had certain consequences. If they didn’t eat the fruit, they would remain in their innocent, though nonprogressing, state. On the other hand, if they ate the fruit, they would die as a result of their choice. But there were other consequences as well. Lehi helps us understand that one of these consequences was that Adam and Eve would be able to have children and experience joy. He explains that “if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things … must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created. …

“And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.” (2 Ne. 2:22–23; see also Moses 5:10–11.)

A supremely wise and loving Heavenly Father thus allowed Adam and Eve to exercise their agency. He knew they had to partake, but it had to be their own choice. He would not force them. Thus, He set the stage for Adam’s and Eve’s further progression through the exercise of their own agency.

Lucifer’s role was that of a counterforce to God’s influence on Adam and Eve. Without his opposition, our first parents would probably not have broken any commandment. But Lucifer—not for the right reasons—set Adam and Eve to thinking. And their thinking brought them to exercise their agency, make their choice, and then experience the consequences of that choice. And so “Adam fell that men might be.” (2 Ne. 2:25.)

For parents, one of the real contributions of the account of Adam and Eve is that it illuminates the challenges children face as they grow beyond simple obedience to the mature use of agency. For the first part of childhood, the most important task for children is obedience, learning to follow parental advice very strictly. However, as children grow older, they gradually must pay more attention to the task of learning to act independently. In the beginning, parents personally show three-year-old children exactly when and where to cross the street. Such guidance at age fourteen is seldom appropriate. In fact, if adolescents do not eventually pay more attention to this second task, they become in a real sense crippled, continually dependent on parents to make their decisions.

Shifting from obedience to independence is difficult. Ideally, parents should help their children make a gradual transition by carefully guiding the children as they exercise increasingly more independence. But in practice, it is very difficult for parents to know when and where to step back and allow their children freedom. Parents understandably make mistakes—by either giving too much or too little leeway. But even if parents’ timing is perfect, they simply cannot smooth out all the bumps: at some point, all children will make mistakes and have the opportunity to learn from them.

We can take comfort from contemporary writer Michael Novak, a committed parent. He points out that family life makes us confront our own shortcomings and forces us to grow up. He laments that he stands convicted every day of his inadequacies as a parent: “Trying to act fairly to children, each of whom is temperamentally different from myself and from each other, each of whom is at a different stage of perception and aspiration, is far more baffling than anything Harvard prepared me for.” (Michael Novak, “The Family Out of Favor,” Harpers, April 1976, p. 42.)

Leaving the Garden

The role of outside influences is also illustrated by the drama in Eden. In the garden, Lucifer represented an influence competing with that of God the Father. Likewise, the development of independent moral choice in children involves influences outside of the family. Children begin fairly early to be aware of these external forces, which frequently represent a combination of freedom-giving knowledge together with the destructive forces of evil, attractively packaged. Parents usually counsel against the influence of the world, but they must allow some contact with it, since eventually children will live in it and must learn to distinguish good from evil.

Soon after making the momentous decision to partake of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve became acutely conscious of their physical bodies and hurried to find covering for themselves. Similarly, about the time our children start making independent moral choices, they undergo the momentous changes of physical maturation. This is usually accompanied by a growing awareness of their sexuality, and they become self-conscious about clothing and appearance. Embarrassment and discomfort are normal at this stage.

After partaking of the fruit and becoming aware of themselves and some aspects of good and evil, Adam and Eve experienced an interview with God. As a result of their choice, they would have to leave their beautiful garden where God provided everything. They would have to endure pain, thorns, thistles, and infertile ground and to earn their bread by the sweat of their brows. They would have children and assume responsibility for rearing them. It would not be easy. And there was no turning back: they could no longer stay in their first home or return to the childlike relationship with their Heavenly Father that they had once enjoyed. Instead, they were forging new relationships with their own children.

Like Adam and Eve, most normal teenagers undergo the pain of estrangement as they begin their separation from parents. The first stages of this estrangement are sometimes accompanied by tension and sorrow. This is normal. Once maturity and desire for independence are developed, children chafe at every real and imagined slight to their newly discovered sovereignty. Some resistance to parental direction is nearly inevitable as children begin to exercise their independence.

Eventually, children must make their way into what may seem a lonely, dreary world. For most young adults, life offers many thorns and thistles compared to the Eden of childhood. They must sweat to make their place in the world and endure the pains of parenting. Even if they return physically to their parents’ home, it is impossible for them to return to the Eden of childhood, for they have become as their parents, knowing good and evil.

Fortunately, that is not the end, and the separation is not final. Soon after Adam and Eve left Eden, they set up house, called upon God in prayer, heard his voice, and heeded his advice. (See Moses 5:4.) So, too, do children often accept their parents’ advice more readily once they feel that their own identity and freedom are secure.

The Implications: Conflict Probable, Compassion Required

As we review the story of Adam and Eve from a parenting perspective, we are reminded that adolescence is normally a difficult time for all concerned. Its proper goal—gaining independence—involves the loss of security. Like our first parents, young adolescents have to deal simultaneously with several challenges as they prepare to leave home:

  • Loss of a “paradisiacal” state that was relatively free of conflict, guilt, want, or self-awareness—a state in which they were adored for simply looking like Grandma or scribbling with a crayon. Suddenly they are to blame for all kinds of mistakes, and demonstrative approval is reduced.

  • Conflicting demands on their time and loyalties to home, school, church, friends, and self.

  • The need to make far-reaching choices rapidly, with insufficient information.

  • New, powerful physical urges and changes that frequently devour energy, time, and attention.

In helping their children face these challenges, parents cannot simply coddle them and keep them from all troubles. Furthermore, they must still guide and discipline them. But parents can try to empathize with adolescents and give them an extra measure of love, listening, praise, and sometimes just the gift of loving silence.

Parents should not be too hard on themselves, either. Sometimes we think that our homes should always be peaceful and free of tension. The account of Adam and Eve reminds us that the role of parent is not always tranquil, especially as children begin to choose for themselves. When adolescent resistance is present in the family, it does not necessarily mean that we are failures as parents. It comes with the territory.

Letting go is not easy for parents, who have invested countless sleepless nights and the best years of their lives in children who seem to be slipping further and further away from them. Loss of physical and social intimacy is painful to every parent who ever kissed a three-year-old’s rosy cheeks and knelt with the child in prayer. Is it any wonder that those same parents smart at their children’s sullen one-syllable replies to concerned questions? Parents may ruefully remember King Lear’s complaint about ungrateful children being sharper than a serpent’s tooth.

Fortunately, most parents begin to recognize children’s growing independence and work out ways to get along. Both parents and children are often relieved that much of the tension is gone by the time the children actually leave home permanently. In most cases, emotional bonds between parents and children are strengthened as children prepare to establish their own families.

Parents can console themselves with the knowledge that Adam and Eve continued to turn to the Lord after their independence was established. So, too, will most children turn to their parents for advice as they see the need for it.

The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden teaches us significant lessons about the difficulties of growing up and leaving home. From it, we see the importance of agency in personal growth. Our children must leave their Eden of dependence on us to make their own righteous decisions.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Beth Maryon Whittaker

Donald K. Jarvis serves as a high councilor and as first counselor in the Young Men presidency of the Provo Utah Oak Hills Stake.