Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it. Proverbs 22 6

This verse used to be popular for Christian parents. In it, God seems to promise that if we, the parents, do what we should, then our children will not leave that training.

For earnest Christian families this verse was foundational for seeking to raise their children in the faith. The thought went something like this – “If I will train them well, they will not be prodigals but will follow the Lord as adults.”

But this misunderstands this verse and sits on a transactional theology. “If I put the right amount of coins in the vending machine, God is obligated to give me the perfect product. If I do something for God he is obligated to do something back.“

The parents of those who “turn out well” can look back with pride. Parents of prodigals can feel guilt, shame, failure, and even disappointment with God. “What did we do wrong?”

As a result of the misunderstanding, this verse has fallen out of favor. It seems to be avoided. But this verse still is God’s Word and there to teach us. In addition, I am convinced that modern parents need this verse more than ever.

So let’s look at this verse with new eyes.

What Does God Say?
First, whenever we come to a verse, we must consider the genre and the context. While there is no particular context of this verse in the chapter, the genre is vitally important. Proverbs is wisdom literature. In particular, the book was given so the God-fearer could live skillfully in God’s world. It describes how things generally work, not how things always work. These are proverbs not promises. Viewing this verse as a promise was the biggest mistake of past generations.

With that in mind, let’s walk through the verse.

Train Up Your Child
Train up a child. Here in the wisdom literature, parents are encouraged to train up their children. In the NT, God commands fathers to bring up their children in the Lord’s training and instruction (Ephesians 6:4). While instruction is words, training is action. It is molding the actions and habits of our children. A soccer coach trains his players through drill. A gymnastics teacher trains the actions of the child. As parents, we bring our children to these event precisely because we want them to learn new habits and discipline.

God gives us as parents the same command. Train your child. Shape their will. Develop habits of self-control as appropriate to their age. To submit to this command, we must comfortable with the thought that part of our job is to shape the will of our children. That is not a popular idea in our day!

Modern parenting has been influenced by the French philosopher Rousseau that children are blank slates and innocent. It is adults that mess children up, we are told. Ironically, Rousseau never had any children of his own or was around children for any length of time. In his own words he admitted, “I think I know man, but as for men, I know them not.”

The Bible, not a French philosopher, should shape our parenting. On the one hand, children are made in the image of God, having a unique bent that we should encourage. Equally important to understand, children are born with a self-oriented heart. Training is helping our children develop self-control appropriate to their age. Our children don’t have to be habitually disruptive. They can be trained in what is good and right.

The Way They Should Go

This brings us to the next part of our verse. There is a way that our children should go and indeed all of us should go. There is right and wrong, consideration and rudeness, thoughtfulness and thoughtlessness, self-control and out-of-control. All of us need training in these area. But in particular, God commands parents to train their children in this way. They are not self-evident to children.

Some Christian parents will object because of philosophy presented earlier. “We are crushing their will. They just need to freedom to develop and be themselves.” Other Christian parents feel it is wrong to train in habits of godliness before our children are converted. Both these thoughts are erroneous. While those habits cannot convert their heart they can provide containers for the Holy Spirit to fill when he converts them.

Our children can be trained not to interrupt us, not to argue, to have a generally happy disposition, to sit still, to not climb on the furniture, to stand and sing when the church is singing etc. Parents are commanded to train the will of children toward godliness. This is God’s idea!

They Will Not Depart

Now we come to final phrase – they will not depart. If this is not a promise, what is it?

It is an encouragement to parents.

Training is hard work. We have to train and retrain, correct and recorrect. teach and reteach. It is tiring. We don’t always see the immediate results. It is much easier to throw up our hands out of laziness or discouragement.. “My child is different. Let them be kids. He was just tired.” We come up with a million reasons not to obey God.

But God is giving us encouragement – this hard work is having an effect.

The alternative to lack of training is found in Proverbs 29:15. The Lord tells us “A child left to himself brings shame on his mother.” In general, training leads to peace. No training, leads to grief.”

Conclusion
While none but the Holy Spirit can convert a heart, training the will is commanded by God and will (generally) yield good fruit. Just because it is not an ironclad promise doesn’t give us the right to throw out the verse. The Lord commands us in Ephesian 6:4 to to bring up our children in the Lord’s training.

Even if our child strays as an adult, our conscience will be clear. We will have been faithful. And that is all that God expects of us.

Update!

After publishing the above post, I received comments from several of you who made me aware of Dr. Gordon Hugenberger’s comments.

He states something similar only in the negative. He argues that Proverbs 22:6 is telling parents that if you train a child in his (sinful) way, (that is you do not oppose and train the sinful nature), then when he is old he will not depart from those sinful habits. 

I have posted his article below. I am not enough of a Hebrew expert to have an opinion and will wait for translators to be convinced. Nevertheless, it is still teaching something similar and not a promise. Whether encouragement or warning – train your children!