In my last post I mentioned 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 is the best known of all the Proverbs on parenting, but it’s also one of the most difficult to understand, so I want to unpack this verse. There are three parts to look at here.
First, it says that we are to “train up a child…” The word for “train” here means to inaugurate or to dedicate. The word was used most often in the OT to describe something that was dedicated to God. The Jewish feast of Hanukkah is the noun form of this word because it involves the dedication of the altar. So to train a child in this way can mean to dedicate him to God. It can also mean to start him or to inaugurate him or to prepare him to go in a certain direction. HOW we’re to do that is something I’ll come back to in a minute.
The second thing to notice is that it says we should train a child “in the way he should go.” This is where the verse really gets ambiguous. Literally, this should read, “according to his way.” Some take this to mean that we should train up a child according to the proper or right way to live. This is how both the NIV and the NASB take it. But, the text does say, “his way,” i.e., the child’s way. For this reason, many scholars take this to mean that a child should be trained according to his own unique personality and stage in life. The emphasis here is on really knowing your child well and training him accordingly.
This means that before we can train our kids we have to be students of our kids. We have to know their stage of life as well as their unique characteristics. I have three kids who are each about five years apart. Growing up, they were always at very different stages of life. That means I treated each one differently. They’re also very different in their temperament and personality. Among the three we have an extrovert and an introvert. We have a mercy giver and a truth teller. We have a morning person and a night person. Recognizing these differences kept us from making the all too frequent mistake of comparing them with each other, “Why can’t you bring home the same grades as your sister?” Because they’re different we expected different things from them and taught them and disciplined them in different ways. Two went to a Christian school and the other to a public school. These are the kinds of things that go into knowing your children.
The third thing to notice about this verse is the last line, “…even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Does this mean that after a period of rebellion they will come around and find the right path? Although that might be true, that’s not what it means. Notice that it says, “EVEN when he is old…” The idea here is that, not only in his youth, but even in his old age he’ll not stray from the right path. The beginning determines the end. It’s as if the writer is saying that raising children is like pouring cement. The way you mold it and shape it when it’s newly poured, before it sets, will determine its shape for the rest of its life. Although it’s not a guarantee, this is what child development experts have been telling us for quite some time now: the first five years of life seem to determine so much of what that child is like. Proverbs has been saying that for a few thousand years!
Years ago there was a family in the San Francisco Bay Area. The father was a well known pastor and his son was named David. David grew up in a family where he was “trained up in the way he should go.” He grew up to love the Lord, felt a call into ministry, and went to seminary. David was a big, athletic young man. He was six feet two and 200 pounds. He worked with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. At age 32 he was diagnosed with cancer. It wracked his body and over time he went from 200 pounds to 80 pounds. When he was about ready to die he asked if his father could be brought to the hospital room. Lying there in bed, he looked up at his father and said, “Dad, do you remember when I was little how you used to hold me in your arms close to your chest? Do you think you could do that again, Dad, one last time?” His father nodded and he picked up his 32—year—old son and held him close to his chest so that their faces were right next to each other. They were eyeball to eyeball, tears running down both faces, and the son looked up at his father and said to him, “Thank you for building the kind of character into my life that has enabled me to face even a moment like this.”
It’s this kind of character that every parent wants for his child; the kind that will carry them through even the darkest storms. God, in his grace, can do that with or without us. But the fact is, he has entrusted us parents with the privilege of being a part of that process, a very important part. “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.” By God’s grace we can do just that. In my next post, I will write about three skills parents must learn to do this well.