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Reason and Revelation Volume 15 #1

"Train Up a Child"--What Does It Mean?

by  Garry K. Brantley, M.A., M.Div.

Proverbs 22:6 is a pithy statement, but packs a powerful punch. “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” This proverb solidly affirms that parental guidance plays an essential role in the spiritual maturation of children. And a probe into its meaning uncovers parenting gems whose practicality enhances their worth. Consider these:

  • First, this is a proverbial statement, and must be interpreted in light of its literary characteristics. Frequently, Bible students approach the proverbs as direct commands that carry secure promises. Such a strict reading of this proverb has haunted parents whose children have abandoned the Christian values that they so prayerfully attempted to instill in them. Yet, biblical proverbs are neither commands nor promises. They are brief, particular expressions of general truth with the inherent possibility of exceptions. To use Proverbs 22:6, therefore, as a litmus test for one’s parental success abuses its nature, and frequently causes unwarranted guilt.
  • Second, the proverb does offer some divine insight into the art of rearing children. This inspired saying says more than for parents to apply rules inflexibly in identical fashion to each child. Children, even in the same family unit, have differing personalities and abilities, and do not respond uniformly to instruction. The phrase “in the way he should go,” actually verifies this fact. Literally, the phrase in Hebrew is: “according to the mouth of his way.” This enigmatic expression has been the subject of much scholarly discussion. Apparently, however, the phrase is an idiomatic way of referring to a child’s specific personality and peculiar traits. The “way,” therefore, does not refer to the “strait and narrow path” mapped out by God’s Word, but to the singular characteristics of each child. Parents are to inaugurate (from hanak, usually translated “train”) their children in the way paved by their unique dispositions. This is the behavioral and attitudinal course from which a child, as a general rule, will not deviate as indicated in the following phrase: “When he is old, he will not turn from it.”

This does not, however, endorse a humanistic approach to child rearing in which parents simply assist each child to clarify his or her own values. Since this proverb appears in the divine volume, it assumes a theistic perspective on life—a life lived in recognition of God’s sovereignty. Hence, this proverb counsels parents to apply judiciously God’s principles to each child, with due consideration to his or her individual traits. In addition, parents are challenged to help each child recognize and sharpen his or her particular abilities, and use them to God’s glory. This proverb, therefore, cautions parents that the rearing of their children often must be as unique and diverse as the number of children God has given them.

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