WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO TRAIN UP A CHILD IN THE WAY HE SHOULD GO?
By Brent Rinehart
“Train up a child in the way he should go;
Even when he is old he will not depart from it”
What a seemingly simple, but overwhelmingly complicated verse! It’s one of the most quoted – and often misquoted – verses in the Bible (Proverbs 22:6).
People often use this verse as a guarantee that if you raise your children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4), they’ll always stay on the right path. That interpretation can be problematic, particularly for the “good parents” I know who have seen their older children stray from the faith. We all know that we can try our best, and sometimes the results are different than we would have hoped. God has given us free will to make our own choices, after all.
Another view of Proverbs 22:6 is that the writer was saying the exact opposite. It’s not a guarantee for parents, but rather a warning. Dr. Douglas Stuart from Gordon Theological Seminary holds this view citing many notable scholars. According to Stuart, the difference comes from the addition of the word “should” in the English translations, something that’s not supported in the original Hebrew. Without the “should” the nature of the verse changes. It’s more about allowing your children to go their own way, not the way they “should” go. In this view, the reading would be more like “Train up a child in his own way, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” That certainly changes things, doesn’t it?
Dave Miller from SBC Voices says it this way: “This is not a promise to parents who raise their children properly but a warning to those who allow their adolescents to grow up without guidance, who raise them to go their own way.” Children left to their own way are not likely to change; they’ll become adults who go their own way… the wrong way. Interestingly, Solomon wrote later in Proverbs 22:15 that “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child.” He obviously recognized that children don’t tend to make wise choices on their own.
There’s yet another view I’ve heard expressed before regarding Proverbs 22:6. It’s the view that Proverbs 22:6 isn’t as much about the moral or spiritual direction of the child, but rather his or her gifts and talents. It’s about parents helping their children discover their purpose and path in life. Parents are in the unique role of helping children discover how God has equipped them and how they can use their gifts in a positive way as adults.
I’m no theologian or Bible scholar, so I’m not an expert in these matters. I am a parent, however, and I do know that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Regardless of the camp, you may fall in on the interpretation of this complicated verse, I believe there are several important implications we should all be able to agree on.
You have a responsibility as a parent.
Throughout Scripture, God is pretty clear about the responsibility He places in the hands of parents. None is more clear than Deuteronomy 6:6-7: “These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”
As I’ve written before, we have a responsibility as parents to teach our children what matters to God. It doesn’t mean forcing them into a certain set of beliefs or rituals; rather, it means demonstrating a real faith – one that puts the focus on loving God and loving others. In my view, there’s not a greater purpose we can have in life than reflecting God’s image for our children to see.
Our children are going to learn about the world around them and their role in it. If they don’t learn from us, they will learn from someone else. It’s our responsibility to use our time with our kids wisely.
You have influence as a parent.
Children are sponges. And, my kids seem to soak up everything – good and bad. They often mimic the mannerisms of my wife and me. They’ll do and say the same things we do from time to time. And I can certainly tell who my daughter has been hanging out with by the phrases she says or the songs she sings.
When writing to the Ephesians, Paul encourages the church to be “imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2). That encourages me and reminds me of how I’m supposed to live and love. But, it also reminds me that my children are in my care and looking for my example. Our children often imitate us. They learn how to act by seeing how we act. They’ll only know how to love by seeing how we love. If they are imitating us, and we are imitating God, our child will grow up knowing what it means to follow Christ.
I’ve often thought about it this way: the moon reflects light from the sun. It’s not a big mirror in the sky reflecting the sun exactly, or else the light from the moon and sun would be the same. When the moon is full, it looks quite bright. But, even at its brightest, it reflects less than 20 percent of the sun’s light. That was the intention… for the moon to be the “lesser light.”
Just as the moon reflects the sun, as a Christian, I should reflect the Son. We were made in God’s image, but we are not perfect like Him. We are works in progress. As we grow closer to Him, there should be some family resemblance between us and our Father. The things I say and do should be characteristic of Him. And, here’s why that’s important. If I truly reflect Him and shine His glory, others will, including my children. “Let your light so shine before men that they will see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
You will have results – either good or bad – as a parent.
Whether you interpret Proverbs 22:6 as a promise for raising your kids “in the Lord” or a warning about not doing so, there’s one thing we know: what you do as a parent matters and it will lead to results. Our children are going to become adults, whether we want them to grow up or not!
I recently went through an excellent study of the book of Ephesians from J.D. Greear. In the study, he talks about how God uses common relationships – marriage, family, work – as “laboratories” to make us more like Himself. “Paul describes one of these laboratories as the family where children learn to obey God by obeying their parents,” he says. “When we are young, our parents represent the authority of God to us. In a way, they stand in for God for a time. We first learn to obey and submit to God by obeying and submitting to our parents.”
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land’” (Ephesians 6:1-3).
Greear describes this relationship as training wheels. “When you’re learning to ride a bike, training wheels are critical. But the training wheels were never the point. Riding the bike was. In our relationship with our parents, the goal isn’t mere obedience. It’s a healthy and honoring family relationship—and, more importantly, a trajectory toward God.”
The years our children are in our homes are critical. These are the formative years when they are developing their entire worldview. The majority of adult Christians became Christians before turning 18. Actually, many follow Christ between the ages of 4-14. On the other hand, we’ve all seen the troubling numbers of young people (the “nones”) who are much more likely to lack any religion at all. Belief systems tend to form early, and while they can – and do sometimes change – it’s critical for parents to have an active role in a child’s spiritual development early on.
It’s not likely that Proverbs 22:6 is a guarantee of success for committed, Christ-following parents. But, it is important to recognize the truth the verse contains. God has given us an incredible responsibility by placing children in our care. The family is a primary mechanism God uses to grows His kingdom and grow His people. As a result, it’s our duty to teach our children about God. We are in an influential position, and what we do today will matter in our kids’ lives tomorrow.