Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)
“Train up a child.” Rarely is a proverb so often quoted and so often misunderstood. It has become the slogan of parenting seminars. It gets referenced as a surefire promise – a divine reward for our toil and sweat as parents.
Young parents latch onto the proverb with the hope that their training will ensure the faithfulness of their children. Older parents feel the proverb’s implicit judgment, weary from watching a child or two depart from “the way,” and wondering whether their children’s disobedience points backward to their own failure in “training.”
I feel the weightiness of this proverb – first, as a parent who wants to see my kids love God and love others, and secondly, as an editor who works on resources involved in training children to worship the God who sent His Son to rescue them from sin. At home and at work, I am involved in “training” children in the way they should go, “teaching” them according to their way.
Unfortunately, some interpretations of this verse miss both the genre of the proverb in general and the meaning of this proverb in particular. And getting this proverb wrong leads to wrongheaded conclusions about parenting, training, and the hearts of our kids.
Proverbs, Not Promises
The first problem for some interpreters of this verse is to forget that the proverbs are just that – proverbs. They are general truths about the way the world normally works, not specific promises that encompass every possible situation. Some proverbs talk about hard work paying off and laziness leading to poverty. That’s generally true, of course, but the proverb genre assumes exceptions. You may know hard-working people trapped in cycles of poverty or lazy people with inherited wealth.
To interpret Proverbs 22:6 as a promise without exceptions is to misread the genre. Sometimes, you’ll find children who are faithful to the Lord – more faithful than their parents. In these cases, the “good outcome” did not depend on their parents’ training.
Other times, you’ll watch a child raised by godly parents go astray – an indication that all the training in the world cannot ensure a child’s faithfulness. Case in point: Jesus’ parable of the father with two sons, both of them lost in different ways. We know the prodigal eventually returned to the house, but when Jesus ended the story, the verdict was still out on the older brother. In both situations, we should not assume the father’s “inadequate training” was responsible for the elder brother’s stony heart or the younger brother’s rebellious deeds.
Meanwhile, it is all too easy for us to rely on our own visions of “training” as the silver bullet to a child’s heart.
In recent years, we’ve seen a growing consensus among many Christians that too much of our attention has been focused on getting kids to behave. Instead, we should emphasize grace and give kids the gospel. I’m grateful for this consensus. After all, there is no sense in teaching kids how to do good if we have failed to lead them to worship the only One who truly is good. We should never teach kids virtues apart from the Vine. As an editor, I want to make sure kids’ curriculum is not full of moralistic teaching (behavioral management), but the kind of biblical teaching that shows them Christ.
But what happens when you begin to rely on the “goodness” of your gospel-centered training, either as parents or church leaders, to ensure a desired outcome for your kids? Once again, we find ourselves relying on our own “training” as the primary driver in the change of a child’s heart, gospel-centered though that training may be.
Instead, we ought to recognize that all our efforts at “training children” in “the Way” need the power of the Spirit. We present God’s Word in its beauty and glory and then pray for the Spirit to soften hearts. We can put children in a posture to receive God’s saving grace, but our training is not to be confused with that grace. To switch the two – our training and God’s grace – is to put on ourselves a burden we cannot carry.
Training Up a Child
The second misstep in interpreting this verse is getting the meaning right. The Hebrew is literally “initiate a child in accordance with his way.”
Now, this could mean one of two things. First, it could mean “direct a child in the way he should go” –emphasizing the direction one should take in life. To paraphrase: “set them down the right path and watch them go.” Secondly, it could mean “teach a child in accordance with his nature,” to meet them where they are and train them in age-appropriate ways.
My take on this passage is something a combination of the two. It’s focused on direction (otherwise, the second part of the proverb makes little sense), but the direction is specific – the way he should go. In other words, we are not giving children general training in holiness, but showing specifically how a child might utilize their own gifts and abilities in the fulfillment of their God-given vocation in life. To not “depart from it” means they will bear fruit as they walk the path God has assigned to them.
Training Up a Parent
The truth of Proverbs 22:6 should lead us to lean heavily on the Holy Spirit.
- We need the illuminating work of the Spirit as we instill the truths of God’s Word in the hearts and minds of our children.
- We need the sustaining work of the Spirit as we walk with our children through highs and lows, valleys and mountains, pointing them to God and His goodness at every turn.
- We need the wisdom of the Spirit as we rely on His guidance to show us the best way to apply truths to children’s hearts.
In the general work of teaching them the ways of God and in the specific work of showing them how God might be calling them to particular avenues of obedience, we not only need to train; we need to be trained. There’s no sense in trying to train our kids to trust in God if what we model for them is that we trust in our training.
This proverb, placed in context of the whole Bible, is telling us that we should take our training of children seriously – both where we guide them and how we shepherd their hearts. But it’s also telling us to trust in the God who gave us this proverb, the God that all our training points to. In Him – not in our training – we place our hopes for our children.