Train a child up in the way that he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it. ~ Proverbs 22:6
This is a much used and much abused scripture verse when it comes to parenting. Many parents hold onto it while raising their kids and think it means “If I teach him right from wrong, he’ll stay on the straight and narrow.” These same parents all too often find themselves wondering if maybe this was one of those bible verses which shouldn’t be taken too literally some years later. Sometimes it can be the source of a great deal of heartache. But there are several problems with the way this verse is often read.
First of all, there’s the “in the way that he should go” issue. I have written before about how our children come with their own personalities, needs and journeys to walk. Teaching kids right and wrong is a small part of parenting. It simply says “this is how people should behave.” That’s an entirely different issue than actually raising a kid. To raise a kid, we need to show them “here’s how to walk the path you will need to walk.”
The word “way” – Hebrew darkow – indicates a path or journey. When used in reference to God it indicates his way of doing things. We will each have our own way of doing what God requires of us. This is what we need to prepared for. Simply exhorting good behavior and punishing bad isn’t going to cut it, imo.
Secondly, it should be noted that the promise’s fulfillment is “when he is old”. It doesn’t say anything about when he is young. In fact, the word which is translated here as “even” – Hebrew gam – (as in “even when he is old”) does not actually convey a sense of continuity. Which is why it’s usually translated as “and”. The way gam is used here is more like “should he reach old age, he will not depart from it.” Old age, especially when Proverbs was written was far from guaranteed. So, not only are no promises made about when he is young. The promise that “he will not depart from it” is in no way guaranteed either.
Basically, we would be much better reading this verse as saying something like, “Teach a kid how to follow their path and even if they get horribly lost along the way, if they live long enough, they will find their way back to it.” Which fits pretty well with the way things actually work, don’t you think? I know that it’s not too popular to actually live and parent as if it were true, but our kids are their own people. They will make their own choices and mistakes and may turn their backs entirely on what we have tried to teach them. It happens to good parents and bad parents. But if we’ve done it right, even if they come to realize that they’ve been on the wrong path forever, you will have given them the map they need to find their way back. Otherwise, they will have to struggle to find the way they should be taking on their own. Which is hard.
At the end, Proverb 22:6 isn’t much of a promise. It’s more of an explanation of how it works and an exhortation for parents to do it right. Our children will thank us – sooner or later.