“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” – Proverbs 22:6 ESV
This verse in Proverbs is often used a sort of legal guarantee, that if a Christian parent raises a child in the Christian faith that even if he or she strays from the fold for a period of time, they will eventually come back to the faith. This is certainly a comforting thought for parents who see adolescent or adult children walking down a path apart from Christian faith, but it isn’t really what the proverb is about. Instead, it is a short powerful statement that highlights a vital truth of parenting. It provides an insight that can guide parents in understanding and guiding their children towards a life of purpose and meaning.
The Hebrew verb (and its variations) that is translated “train up” in many translations is often translated differently in other contexts. It often is used in the context of the dedication of buildings or objects to the Lord as well as the sense of initiation, discipline and education. The phrase “in the way he should go” refers to both a moral sense, that is, a way a child ought to go or behave, and also a sense of path that one take through life in accordance with their temperament, personality, gifts, talents and resources. When one puts these meanings into context it paints a much different picture. It paints the picture of a parent that is carefully tending to a child, paying close attention to their uniqueness and seeking to understand what the best future for that child might look like. It also paints the picture of a prayerful parent who understands that they are a steward of that child, dedicating that child to the Lord on a daily basis and co-laboring together with the Holy Spirit to guide that child towards a path that is suited to God’s purposes and the child’s unique design.
When seen in this light, this proverb offers an encouraging and challenging template of parenting. It is encouraging, in that unlike the “legal guarantee” style interpretation it acknowledges that a parent cannot control either their child or the future. Children make their own choices as they grow and that is a good thing. They need to learn to do this in a healthy way and parents have a role in helping this to happen. It is challenging, however, as it highlights the meticulous care and deep prayerful dependance that godly parenting requires. Every child is a complicated bundle of emotional, spiritual, physiological and mental wiring that even the most sensitive parent can misunderstand and damage along the way. Our role in stewarding that child requires all that we have and even that isn’t nearly enough to the task. We need the help of the Holy Spirit every step of the way.
One final thought is appropriate to mention as well. Acknowledging our dependance on God’s help does not excuse us from the responsibility of engaging deeply. Engaging with your child is not the same as “helicopter parenting”. But it does mean being present and being attentive. It means coming to grips with being a steward, not an owner of your child. They don’t belong to you, but ultimately to God. But what a privilege to have the responsibility to help shape that child along the way.