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Train Up a Child

The most famous parenting verse in the book of Proverbs says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).

Rarely is a proverb so often quoted and so often misunderstood. “Train up a child” has become the slogan of parenting seminars. It gets referenced as a surefire promise. We see it printed on banners for the annual family week at church. Pastors quote it every time they dedicate a baby at church. Grandparents cling to it as a guarantee.

Young parents hitch their wagons to this proverb-turned-promise with a determined hope that their diligent training will ensure the gospel-faithfulness and salvation of their children. Trevin Wax believes older parents “feel the proverb’s implicit judgment, weary from watching a child or two depart from ‘the way,’ and wondering whether t

heir children’s disobedience points backward to their own failure in ‘training.’”

Most of us feel the weightiness of this proverb, don’t we? First, as parents and grandparents who want to see our kids and grandkids love God and love others, and secondly, as pastors or leaders who preach and teach families how to make disciples of children who need to worship the only true God who sent His one and only Son to rescue them from sin.

“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,” writes Trevin Wax.

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.

The second misstep in interpreting this verse is getting the meaning right. Professor Jason DeRouchie, Research Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, suggests that the ESV’s “in the way he should go” is a very idiomatic way of capturing the Hebrew “according to the dictates of his way.” So, the command line of the proverb literally reads, “Dedicate a youth according to the dictates of his way,” or perhaps more commonly, “Dedicate a child according to what his way demands.”

I believe Proverbs 22:6 encourages parents to train up their children according to the gifts, abilities, and natural interests of the child, according to what his way demands. In other words, we are not only giving children general training in godly living, but showing specifically how a child might utilize their own gifts and abilities – their bent – 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. They will not depart from using the gifts, skills, and talents God has given them, and we have nurtured in them, and they will be successful and fruitful in that way.

However you interpret Proverbs 22:6, we cannot deny the implication that the parents’ intentional moral and religious shaping early on will have a permanent effect on their child for good. This statement is not a hard-and-fast promise to parents, however, for the rest of the book of Proverbs makes clear that the power of the youth’s future depends not only on the parents’ guidance but also very much on the choices he or she makes.

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 Jesus Christ – not in our training – we place our hopes for our children. In Jesus, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we find the motive, strength, and foundation for raising our children to be godly boys and girls who mature and grow in their faith to become mature, fruitful disciples in their chosen vocations, whatever that may be.

As God the Father raises up parents in the way they should go, parents, in turn, raise up their children in the way they should go, and our Father gets all the credit.


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