Training up children: Some thoughts about Proverbs 22:6

Recently I was asked give my interpretation of Proverbs 22:6.

“Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” (NIV)

Although not stated, I assume that the person asking wanted to know whether this Proverb can be taken as a promise, and if so, why is it the case that Christian parents will sometimes see their children stray from the ways of the Lord, even if they have been raised in them? A great question!

Interpreting Proverbs

Before I examine the Proverb itself, I should say a few things about interpreting Proverbs themselves.

As I understand it, the interpretation of Proverbs must be approached as a particular genre or type of literature which requires great interpretative care. Scholars call the book of Proverbs “Wisdom” literature—not “Promise” literature as some might wish to use it. Thus, Proverbs is designed to give insight for God’s people into wise ways of living out God’s Law (or Torah) in the world and in life. Wisdom is thus a “memorable, Torah-informed rule of thumb.” Note the two qualifiers I’ve used here to describe a Proverb: Memorable (easy to recall because of its poetic form) and Torah-informed (consistent with the Laws of God and therefore the Character of God).

For example, look at Prov 22:11 just a few verses after the text I was asked about:

“He who loves a pure heart and whose speech is gracious will have the king for his friend.”

Now, we know that there are many pure and gracious people of faith who have nevertheless found themselves enemies of the king. I think today even of the many who are being martyred for their witness to Christ by the very kings and authorities that these people would hope their purity and grace would persuade to do otherwise. So what is the Proverb saying?

Although it loses its “punch” when stated in a more prosaic form, this Proverb is saying: “Generally speaking, purity of heart and gracious speech are markers of a person who is devoted to God’s Torah, and consequently, such a person is much more likely to be honored, even by those in power and who make worldly laws and judgments, than the one who operates with an impure heart and with a slanderous or harsh tongue.” Unfortunately, my clunky prose is far less memorable than the original saying.

Further, when I go back to the opening of Proverbs, we find: “Let the wise listen and add to their learning and let the discerning get guidance—for understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.” (1:5-7). Essentially, I think these verses lay out the purpose of the Proverbs and how best to use them. We study wisdom, knowing that in life, it is ALWAYS better to follow wisdom in the fear of the Lord, REGARDLESS of actual outcomes. It is better to follow the way of wisdom, not just because we get the preferred results (sometimes we don’t) but because it is simply a reflection of what ought to be our whole stance in life: To live in fear of the Lord and to align our actions and words with God’s revealed character.

Training up Children. . .

So what does Proverbs 22:6 mean? Let’s take another look.

“Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” (NIV)

Even if it were granted the Proverb is in fact a promise to parents (which by now you can see that I don’t think it is), we shouldn’t forget a couple of key factors. First, none of us parents “parent” perfectly, so if a child strays, we should at least realize that we weren’t likely faultless in bringing them up in the ways of the Lord. Even if our words are biblically sound, in the end we know that our actions and words often do not line up. Surprise, surprise, we don’t always practice what we preach! Second, children are sinners like everyone else and have a God-given will to exercise. Just like us, they can choose to go against things they have been taught or even against things they know to be true and right. That’s just the way we sinning humans operate. It’s the way I operated as a child and it is the way our children sometimes operate.

But as I have been arguing, Proverbs 22:6 is not a promise. Here’s why…

When it comes to “Train up a child…and when he is old he will not turn from it”—we are not talking (as with other Proverbs) about an ironclad guarantee. It is not simply, “Do X and Y will result.” Proverbs are not rules of causation. But the Proverb does, I believe, address exactly how we are supposed to work with our children, regardless of the outcomes. Wise, God-fearing parents seek to train children in the ways of God’s Torah. And for Christian parents, this means training children in the way of the new Law of Jesus Christ, in the Law of Love, which is none other than the path of Christian discipleship.

Practically, what does this Proverb then mean? Negatively, I think of two things. First,  at the very least it speaks to those who might think good parenting means to let children “figure it out” on their own. I’m alarmed by how many in our world take that approach, thinking that a child can make decisions about matters that are far beyond their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual maturity to make decisions about. I think, for example, of the movement to let children as young as toddlers and pre-schoolers sort out on their own their gender identity. Or perhaps more close to home for most readers, parents should never be afraid of training their children in the ways of discipleship and in following Jesus. It is not up to parents to let their children “explore all the options.” We are parents to our children, not scholars of religion. Sure, we need to inform children that there are other religions and worldviews, but it is not our job to open wide spaces for them to make up their own mind without bias (as if that were even possible) but rather to show them in word and action why following Jesus is the very best thing they can do. So I think that the writer of this Proverb would pull no punches and call laissez-faire approaches to child raising exactly what it is: Foolish.

Second, the Proverb undoubtedly and more gravely speaks to those who more actively lead children into unwise ways. Unfortunately, we all likely do this at some point or another, precisely because we ourselves, as parents, do unwise things. In that regard the Proverb implicitly challenges parents to ask, “Am I actually training my children in wisdom or am I encouraging something, even unintentionally, that goes against what I know God’s wisdom and God’s character might otherwise indicate?” And woe to those, as Jesus says, who causes a little one to fall (Matt 18:5-6).

But what about the second half of the Proverb? Does it not say, If we train children in wisdom, then when they are old they will not turn from that wisdom? Yet again, I insist that the Proverb is not giving us assurance our children will never stray from the right ways—often they will. But it does warn us that if we DON’T train them up in the right ways of God, why in the world would we expect our children to find their way in life in honoring God? No, there is no “money back guarantees” for our children; but it is certainly an indication of our own foolishness as parents if we think our children will be okay if, in the absence of a guarantee or a promise, we simply stop trying to train them in the right way.

So I suppose I see this Proverb as telling us something more important about us as parents than the eventual spiritual outcome of our children. For to train a child up in wisdom shows us that we ourselves have learned (and are learning) the lesson of wisdom. And chances are, our children won’t forget that wisdom, even if they end up making foolish decisions themselves. Indeed, when they have made those foolish decisions, it may well be precisely because they were brought up in wisdom that they will KNOW that they have made a foolish mistake—and will have opportunity, under the gracious mercy of a Father who forgives those who come to him in humility, a chance to return to a life walking in the ways of his Son Jesus.


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