Proverbs 22:6 (NIV 2011) ”Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.”
Who doesn’t want their children to follow Jesus? Even people who are agnostic place their children in faith communities with the hope of instilling good morals and values. We want the absolute best for our children. Ultimately, we want our children to be in Heaven for eternity.
The pressure parents feel is intense and consistent. Parents often feel judged for how their children behave and tend to over-internalize their children’s choices. Parents shame themselves constantly, “I have probably messed my kids up and they’ll hate me one day”, or “what if they don’t follow God because of my mistakes?” As parents we become desperate for help, assurance, and the hope that it’ll all pay off one day.
At first glance this seems to provide a sense of assurance and hope for parents. Parenting is hard work and good parenting does make the world of a difference. So, is this an appropriate interpretation of this passage? What are the implications of using this passage incorrectly?
It was probably my second semester of Hebrew that I remember reading about how this scripture is misinterpreted. If we take a look at the original language it makes more sense.
חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל־פִּי דַרְכּוֹ גַּם כִּֽי־יַזְקִין לֹֽא־יָסוּר מִמֶּֽנָּה׃
“Train up a child in the way they go, and when they are old they will not depart from it.”
First off, the word used for train or ḥānaḵ is used 5 times throughout 4 verses in the OT. It is primarily used in the sense of dedication. However, that is not the usage in this verse. We need to be very curious about what it means to train up a child. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 otherwise known as the Shema is a good place to start. Deut. 6:7 essentially says to engrave or impress God’s Word upon our children at home, walking on the road, at bedtime, and when they wake up. Sidenote: impress doesn't mean exasperate see Ephesians 6:4 Colossians 3:21. Paul's point in Ephesians and Colossians is that we need to be careful that our approach doesn't strip children of motivation. See more below.
Secondly, the major issue is in the translation of should. The literal meaning is “according to his way”. There are no biblical examples that support interpretation should go. Innately, children need A LOT of training! So, a “child’s way” is usually not a very mature one. We shouldn’t parent according to a child’s way but according to God’s way. Again, God's way does not leave children exasperated.
What is the passage trying to tell us? How a parent trains a child is the direction they tend to go, so be careful. This passage is an admonition rather than a promise. The passage is saying “don’t be surprised when your children go in the direction you’ve trained them.” The bible uses well-placed sarcasm, and this is one of those examples. It is a rhetorical device used for effect see Proverbs 19:27 for another example.
The danger in using this passage as a promise when providing guidance can be profound. There are quite a few parents who took their children to church, camp, prayed with them, and taught them the scriptures. And yet, their children decided to go a different direction. What did we tell those parents? Did we attempt to console them using scriptures like this one? Please be gracious to yourself as well as to others regardless of what you've shared.
Some have said that this still functions as a promise as children can return to Christ later in life. I still would not recommend using this as a promise because of other exegetical issues. When kids don’t become Christians and then plunge into addiction, poor choices, and become unstable it breaks a parent’s heart. This is especially true when a parent pours their heart into parenting their child. God shares our parenting pain as seen in Isaiah 1:2, “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me”. Ultimately, our children rebel against a creator who desires to be their father.
So where is the encouragement for parents? Again, we need to consider how words are used. Encouragement in the Greek is parakaleō which means more than comforting someone (ex. Heb 10:24). It can also mean to admonish or carefully remind someone of something.
This scripture is admonishing parents to do their job and leave the rest in God’s capable hands. The assurance and hope come from knowing we did our part raising kids that were loaned to us in the first place.
Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar by Pratico and Van Pelt p. 162-163
BDAG Greek Lexicon
*Discouragement means "to become disheartened to the extent of losing motivation, be discouraged, lose heart, become dispirited, of children"