Christian Parenting: Re-examining Proverbs 22:6

Perhaps the most abused and misused text concerning parenting is that found in Proverbs 22:6. The mistranslation and misinterpretation of this verse has led to tragic consequences in many families.

The KJV reads: "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it." The two phrases of this verse are usually interpreted to be a direct cause and effect, command and promise. If you do this... as parents, then there will inevitably be the desired outcome in your child. Thus understood, the verse has put many a parent under intense guilt of self-condemnation, and church condemnation, when the child does not meet expectations. The parent surmises, "It's my fault that my child turned out the way he did. I must not have trained him up in the way he should go." It is a heavy parental responsibility, indeed, when the parent is expected to "play God" in the life of their child, by "training them up" to be everything God intends. The religious instructors are only too pleased to jump in, and dictate and delineate all of the correct procedures for training up a child. Child-training techniques abound in religious books, seminars, tapes and support groups.

Another variation (which tries to avoid some legalism), indicates that the intent of the verse is that a parent should "Dedicate (set apart, affirm) the child in the way he should go." Parental dedication or commitment to what God has in mind for the child, creates a great parental responsibility to discover and discern the particular will of God for that particular child. This is thought to be a more "spiritual" approach to parental responsibility. Sometimes the emphasis is on parental dedication to bring up the child in accord with his/her particular psychological needs or particular personality. This, again, creates a great parental responsibility to psycho-analyze each child to determine his/her particular "bent," so as not to "warp" the child psychologically.

Traditional religious interpretation assumes that these commanded inculcations of parental responsibility will then be followed by the alleged promise, that will never fail, because God is faithful to keep all of His promises! "If you parents DO what you are supposed to DO (spiritually and psychologically) for the child (i.e. take him to Sunday School and mold his psyche), then when he is old, he will not depart from it." Apparently that means that the child will never think for himself. He will never make his own choices, as a choosing creature. He will never stray, or rebel, or make mistakes, or fail. He will never make you look bad, humiliate you, or tarnish your reputation (or that of your religious group). He will be a perfect, "spiritual" person; everything God means for him to be. He will live out the psychological personality he was meant to have in full satisfaction of self-fulfillment. All of this contingent, of course, on you, the parent, having properly combined and implemented the spiritual and psychological guidelines of parental child-training.

That is not what the Bible says, or what the Bible means! Here is some exegetical research into this verse and the original Hebrew words, to see what this verse really says:

The first word in the sentence is the Hebrew word hanak (2596). Surprisingly, it does not mean "train up," nor does it mean "dedicate." According to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (eds. Harris, Archer, Waltke), it means "to inaugurate, to initiate, to begin, to start off."

"Start off a child (literally "a boy" in this case) in the way he should go.." The phrase "the way he should go" is actually two Hebrew words. The first is peh (6310), which directly (or literally) means "mouth." But the figurative or metaphorical meaning is obviously the meaning in this case, i.e. "opening, entrance." The second Hebrew word is derek (1870), which directly (or literally) means "road, pathway, or way." But the primary usage of this word in the Old Testament is figurative, i.e. "journey, course, way."

"Inaugurate (start off) a child in the opening (entrance) to the course (journey, way) of life,...." That is, obviously, the parent's responsibility ­ to "start off a child in the opening to the pathway of life." Parents are to engage in guiding the child through the preliminaries of the course of life, admitting throughout that they are just trying to learn where the course goes, at the same time as the child is. We are not God! And we do not have it all figured out! We are there to assist them in getting a good start.

The second phrase of the verse provides a logical consequence of the first phrase: "...when he grows up, gets older..." The Hebrew word is zagen (2204), which comes from the root word which means "to have a beard." When he is old enough to have a beard, he will not depart or leave (Let's hope that we don't have to interpret that directly or literally and physically!) The Hebrew word sur (5493), translated "depart" in the KJV, does not mean that the child will never get surly! The word has numerous meanings, as translated in the Old Testament: "turn aside, defect, rebel, degenerate, escape, swerve, take off, turn off, wander, leave, get away, withdraw, be beheaded, be deprived, lack, etc. Does this mean that a child who is started on the way of life will not "lose his head," or "be turned off?" More likely it means that a child who is started on the opening of the way of life, when he grows up he will not lack foundation or lack direction. He will not flounder, because he will have been set off and directed on the right course! He will not be able to get away from the fact that he had a good beginning, and was pointed in the right direction.

That sounds logical, doesn't it? It explains parental responsibility, but does not send parents off on depressive guilt-trips about their inability to "play God" in the lives of their children. "Start off a child in the opening of the course of life, and when he grows up he will not lack direction." He may choose not to go in that direction, but he won't be able to get away from the fact that his life was inaugurated in that direction.

If we are to be Christian parents, our focus must be on Jesus Christ, rather than on family dynamics or on parental procedures. We are to "fix our eyes on Jesus, who is the author and finisher of our faith" (Heb. 12:2), which includes our faithful parenting. When Jesus Christ is allowed to function in the family, and His life is lived out through the parent, then we will see the family function as God designed it to function; not by formula, but by faith which is the receptivity of His activity.

As Christian parents we must recognize that "we are not adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God" (II Cor. 3:5). Jesus said, "Apart from Me, you can do nothing" (John 15:5), and that certainly applies to successful parenting. When we acknowledge our inability and weakness, then the strength and power of Christ becomes operative, and the grace of God is sufficient (II Cor. 12:9) in our parenting. Many a parent has come to that exasperating point where they cry out, "God, unless you do something in this family, it is going to be a total fiasco and failure!" God loves to hear that cry, for then He can begin to function as He desires.

Only God can do what really needs doing in the child's life anyway. Only God can convert and regenerate a child spiritually. Only God can save and sanctify a child, making them righteous and holy. Only God can make a Christian disciple out of your child, and develop His character in the child's personality.

Techniques and procedures of parenting are a "dime a dozen," and have little value or effect on the outcome of parenting. The majority of our parenting input is done so indirectly, so inadvertently, so incidentally, so indeliberately, as to be indiscernable! Parenting is based far more on what you are (personal being and identity), than what you do (procedurally). If your spiritual identity is that of a Christ-one, a Christian; and if you are available to allow the very Being of the life of Jesus Christ to be lived out through you (behaviorally); then just "listen under" God in obedience, and enjoy your children! Let them "see" and "catch" what God has for them through you. The "hearing" of teaching and instruction, though important, is probably the least beneficial and constructive means of child development. If your child learned best by hearing, then he/she should know it by now, don't you think? If teaching were just telling, then kids would be brilliant! What children learn best (and they learn it early in life) is what they observe in the actions of their parent's lives, the behavioral expressions and the underlying motivations thereof. The dictum is true: "What you do speaks so loud, I can't hear what you say."

The essence of Christian parenting is the life of Jesus Christ lived out before our children. That expression of Christ's life cannot be orchestrated by techniques and procedures or by how-to formulas, but only as Christian parents are faithfully receptive to the divine dynamic of His activity. Christian parenting is primarily a life expression of "Christ, who is our life" (Col. 3:4; cf. Jn. 14:6). It is His life that we pray might be invested in and indwell our children, but we cannot effect that - ­ only God can!

From an article by J.A. Fowler