What does it mean to train up a child according to his way?
By Dick Lentz
“Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it (Proverbs 22:6, NIV).”
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the above verse quoted in church services during the dedication of someone’s child. And as I’ve heard it explained, “the way he should go” means, “The Lord’s way,” and that what God is promising is that if a parent raises a child according to the ways of the Lord that the child will continue to follow those ways when they become an adult.
This understanding of the verse seems to make sense when you note how it is footnoted in the New American Standard translation of the Bible. This version indicates that the “way he should go” literally means, “according to his way.” If one substitutes the second phrase for the first, the verse would read,
“Train a child according to his way, and when he is old he will not turn from it.”
The predominant conclusion among those who quote this verse with this understanding of it seems to be that “his way” means “God’s way” and that if we teach a child to follow God’s commandments and the ways of His wisdom when that child is young, when that child becomes an adult they will not turn away from those ways.
Is this a guarantee that if a child is raised right that they will pursue what’s right?
I used to think this was a pretty terrific promise. What parent would not want to know that they could ensure their child’s future spiritual health by teaching them the ways of God’s wisdom and exhorting them to follow His commandments. This presumes of course that children simply need to be pointed in the right direction and that once they understand it and know its benefits will embrace it. Seems like a pretty good principle of parenting: teach what is right in God’s eyes and what follows will be a lifetime of obedience to Him.
Over the years I noted, however, that there is a huge gap between what is happening in the lives of the children of Christian parents and what some conclude this verse means; that if we parent right our children will follow what’s right when they grow older. Time after time I saw parents raise their children according to what they deemed to be sound biblical principles only to see those children abandon God’s ways when those children reached adulthood. I also observed that Christians who raised multiple children didn’t always have the same outcome even though they seemingly raised all their children according to God’s wise advice. One child might end up following the ways of the Lord when they became an adult, for example, while the other or others might choose a more worldly path. Godly parents who seemingly did everything right might not even have one child who stayed in a relationship with God into adulthood. It seemed that good Christian parenting no matter how much focused on what’s right in God’s eyes didn’t guarantee that a child would continue to be obedient to God when that child reached adulthood.
Treating this verse as a promise that if a child is trained according to the Lord’s ways that when that child grows old they’ll keep following those ways didn’t stand the test of reality. Although some might attribute bad results in this regard to bad parenting, I suspected that it was my understanding of Proverbs 22:6 that was flawed.
Does “His way” mean “the Lord’s Way”?
I then began thinking about the significance of the word “his” in “according to his way.” Since “his” is a pronoun, it has to have an antecedent; a noun it refers to. The general rule of thumb is that the antecedent for a pronoun is the closest noun in the same sentence or paragraph. The problem when assuming that the antecedent for “his” is “God” or “the Lord” is that neither is mentioned in this verse. There are references to “the Lord” in other verses in the chapter but these have no textual connection to Proverbs 22:6. The implication of this is that “his way” cannot be accurately interpreted “the Lord’s way.” It’s more likely therefore that “his way” is “the child’s way” since “child” is the only personal noun referenced in the verse.
If “his way” really means “the child’s way,” then the passage would more accurately be translated,
“Train up a child according to the child’s way, and when he is old he will not turn from it.”
What if “his way” really means “the child’s way”?
If this is the correct translation of the verse, if “his way” is really “the child’s way,” then it may be telling parents that if they train up a child according to the child’s natural inclinations that when that child grows old they will keep on living according to those inclinations.
In order to understand the implications of this, it’s important to understand what a child’s natural inclinations are. According to the Apostle Paul,
“There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one (Romans 3:10,11).”
Paul said that no one inherently does what is good. Nobody is naturally inclined to be obedient to God. This includes children. So what happens if you let a child be themselves? If they have the choice between doing what is right in God’s eyes or pursuing what’s wrong, will they automatically embrace the good and forgo the bad? I suspect that if a child is raised according to what they are naturally inclined to do and those inclinations are wrong in God’s eyes that they’ll continue to live that way well into adulthood.
Many if not most children seem to have an abundance of good qualities, however. Whether these are caught, taught, or are innate is a subject for debate. But regardless of how a child has acquired these positive traits, what happens if those traits are nurtured? If children are raised according to their positive character traits whether they acquired or inherent, will they continue to embrace them when they become adults? I suspect that they will.
Children also have natural talents and gifts. These as well as other paths they choose in life may have very little to do with right or wrong. They simply represent traits and desires that make them different from others, including their parents. If parents encourage their children to pursue and develop interests and abilities that are inherent within them, ones that may be neutral in God’s, will that child continue to pursue those interests when they become adults? Once again, I believe that they will.
Could this verse be both a warning and a promise?
If this verse means that when you train up a child according to the child’s way that when they grow old they won’t depart from it, then it could therefore be both a warning and a promise. It could be warning parents not to give into every whim a child has as many of these whims represent ungodly tendencies, ones a child will continue to pursue if not corrected early in their lives. It could also be a promise that when a child’s exhibits positive traits and gifts and these are nurtured and developed that these will continue to be a big part of the child’s life as well when they become adults.
That’s my understanding of Proverbs 22:6, at least as I see it today.