“You have nothing to worry about with your kids,” she told me one day, “because you’re doing everything right.” These words from a pastor’s wife were meant to encourage but actually provoked more questions than answers. The women was well-meaning. She was saying there was no earthly way our kids could fail because my wife and I had been raised so well, we are grounded so deeply in our faith, and we subscribe to the “right” parenting techniques.
It was a lot of pressure. Our first daughter, Grace, had just turned 1. By all accounts we were doing a credible job. She was a good kid. The parental prophecy from our friend was often repeated in that first year of parenting. Dan and Angela are such great parents, aren’t they?
Fast forward two years and everything changed. Grace was in the throes of rebellion. Terrible 2s turned into terrible 3s. Even though our parenting paradigm had not changed, and we were subscribing to all of those same “right” methods, the same well-meaning women pulled my wife aside and issued an apocalyptic warning about Grace. If we didn’t “get her under control,” she’d end up profligate child. Then she named some infamous rebels we both knew well. Others told us that Grace was “going to end up in jail if we didn’t do something, that she was “one of the worst kids we’ve seen.” So in a matter of a few years we moved from parenting savants to parenting dunces.
In the years since, we’ve moved on. Looking back, that early criticism, while hurtful and often misguided, had elements of truth we adopted. We’ve matured and discovered additional techniques that have helped Grace grow into a delightful, radiant 6-year old girl.
While the advice we were given may be extreme and not normative for most parents, it does fit with a child-training paradigm that often seems more man-centered than Spirit-led.
Train Up a Child
If you were to survey evangelical parents and ask them to quote their foundational child-raising Scripture, the answer would likely be Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
This verse has become the basis for Christian parenting because we’ve been told, for generations now, that it is both a promise and a command. We think it’s a promise because it seems to guarantee success. The formula is rather simple: Do things God’s way and your kids will turn out right.
It’s also assumed to be a command. If your kids don’t turn out right, you must have disobeyed Scripture at some point. This has to be the case, because Scripture doesn’t lie, right?
Here’s the problem with this interpretation. It’s neither biblically accurate nor helpful. Worse yet, it has led to all kinds of unnecessary guilt on the part of Christian parents and perhaps led them to adopt a man-centered, results-oriented system for raising children.
Proverbs 22:6 is great wisdom. It’s in the inspired canon of Scripture. Still, the basic principles for biblical interpretation tell us to consider the genre. The proverbs are the best collection of wisdom anywhere in the world. They are thoughts from the Almighty on how to live and glorify God in the most practical areas of life. Ultimately they point us to Jesus Christ, the only one who perfectly illustrated the wise life. He is the wisdom of God personified (1 Cor. 1:24, 30; Col. 2:3).
While Proverbs are wisdom, they are not promises. Consider other well-known proverbs, such as Proverbs 15:1, which reminds us that a “gentle answer” turns away anger. This is generally true, but not always. I imagine that if I take my gentle answer to the gritty urban streets near where I live, my gentle answer might stir up wrath. Or consider Proverbs 17:17, which says a “friend loves at all times.” Generally speaking, you can count on your friends to love at all times. But then there are times when a friend betrays. Consider David’s words in Psalm 41:9: “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.”
You could easily point out quite a few other instances where Proverbs taken as promises fall short of expectations. Which bring us back to Proverbs 22:6. To interpret this as biblical wisdom is, well, wise. Generally speaking, if you follow biblical parenting and discipleship models in the Scriptures, you’ll raise children who turn out well. But as a promise, this verse falls woefully short.
If Proverbs 22:6 were a promise (and by extension) a command, you have serious theological problems. God often referred to himself as the “parent” of the nation of Israel (Ex. 4:22-23; Jer. 3:19). And yet, you don’t have to be a Bible scholar to observe that Israel was a most rebellious child. Was God, therefore, a bad parent? Was Jesus a bad “parent” because Judas, one of his disciples, rejected him?
This illustrates the folly of such a formula-driven application of Proverbs 22:6. It reduces the Scriptures to a sanctified formula, a more spiritual-sounding version of Dr. Phil. This man-centeredness eliminates the only agent for human change: the Holy Spirit.
Enter the Holy Spirit
A better parenting paradigm is faithfulness-driven rather than results-led. Our role as parents is not to “produce” children who exhibit certain behavior criteria, but to be mere instruments in the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the heart of our children. We highly value and adhere to the wisdom of Proverbs, Deuteronomy, Hebrews, and other child-training passages in the Scriptures and realize only God transforms the hearts of our children.
Our first priority then becomes salvation, so the regenerating work of the Spirit can begin, both making the parenting job easier and also pointing toward lasting change. We look for signs of inner heart change rather than focusing primarily on external conformity.
I’ve seen this at work in my daughter, Grace. We believe she came to faith in Christ at the age of 5, not simply because she mouthed the “right words” in Awana or Sunday school, but because we have begun to witness the fruit of the Spirit’s work in her life. We often see this after she rebels. She has often approached us, many hours and even days after receiving discipline, and has expressed genuine remorse. We’ve also seen an increased hunger for spiritual content and recognition of theological ideas such as salvation, regeneration, and other aspects of the gospel message.
Recognition of the Holy Spirit’s pre-eminent role in changing hearts reshapes our parenting priorities. Removing the unnecessary weight of producing results helps us see our kids, not as a reflection of who we are, but as a unique creation in the image of the Creator. Instead of pushing our kids to abide by our standards as a way of conforming and producing their own righteousness, we might offer the disciplined life as gracious obedience to the Spirit, who empowers them to live the life of Christ.