Train up a Child

A Nepalese woman and her infant child.

"Train up a child in the way he should go;
    even when he is old he will not depart from it."

The above verse, from Proverbs 22:6, has formed the basis over the years of much teaching on the issue of Christian parenting.

Often, the verse is interpreted as follows: "teach a child the word of God, model it by personal example, nurture it with prayer, and, when that child reaches adulthood, they will live a godly Christian life." 

While most Christians would agree that these are excellent actions for a Christian parent to do, there are several problems with assuming that the above verse is correctly interpreted in that way.

One problem is that the saints in the Bible did not always have that experience. The summary of Solomon's life in 1 Kings 11:4, for instance, could not be clearer:

"When Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father."

Lot's daughters (incest), Noah's sons (drunkenness) and Job's children (wild parties) are just three of the other examples of ungodly children raised by godly parents. Are we pushing the example too far when we also note that God himself had two sons (Adam and Israel) who had an excellent upbringing, but a rebellious adulthood? Examples also abound from church history.

The above interpretation can produce significant pastoral problems for Christian parents who have sought to raise their children according to Biblical principles and have backed these precepts up with their prayerful lifestyle, only to find their children as adults pursuing very sinful lifestyles.

An alternative interpretation of the proverb hinges on the meaning of the word "should." The word can be used in two ways. Consider these two sentences:

"You broke it, so you should pay for it."

"An apple tree should produce apples."

In the first sentence, the word "should" is a moral imperative. It speaks of an external obligation or a duty.

In the second sentence, the word "should" conveys the idea of that which is natural, expected and fitting. There is no moral connotation. 

The word in the second sense can be used of people as well as trees:

"Usain Bolt should win gold at the Olympics, because he's in top form this season."

 If the proverb uses "should" in the second sense of the word, it allows the verse to be understood in a different way from that outlined at the start of this post. Instead, its meaning could be: "train a child in the way that is natural for him or her to go in."

If this interpretation is correct, it raises the question, "What is the natural way for a child to go in?"  My answer would be "It depends on the child."

As an apple tree naturally produces apples, and Usain Bolt naturally wins races, so a child naturally wants to "go" in a certain direction. 
The English word "educate" comes from two Latin roots: e- (out of, from) and duco (I lead). To educate is to "lead out from" within a child. It is not the same as putting information into a child; more like, bringing out that which is already inside them. I understand every child to have God-given inherent potential, which exists in two forms. The first is that which is within most children generally. The second is that which is specific or particular to that individual child.  Some children have a natural inclination towards sport; others to building things, some to making things, writing, music or public speaking.

A child who is educated according to their natural inclinations will not depart from them, even as an adult, since they will be doing what is natural for them to do.

Interpreted in this way, the proverb is not a verse about moral or spiritual formation as such, but about education and skills development.

What do you think?  


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Ros De Silva said...

I think this is a really helpful post. Personally I find the 'formulas' like family Bible times with the obligatory Bible stories for toddlers etc very pressurizing and exacting. The formulas leave no room for grace in parenting nor room for a child to find their own faith.
That is not to say that those things 'shouldn't' be done but rather they can be done with a more realistic understanding that even if they aren't done, it is still possible for kids to find God for themselves or indeed for God to find them.
It would be far more helpful for parents to 'train' their children in lifeskills and the like which in turn will help them engage with the world they live in and might even make parenting rather more enjoyable. Perhaps morality or spirituality can only be modelled and understood at an unconscious level. After all, I don't recall Jesus using external rewards to motivate people to follow him.

Andrew Knight said...

1. Can you 'train' saving faith into a child?
2. The interpretation of the verse that you don't like seems to me to be not unlike the mistake of telling sick people that they are sick because they lack faith.
3. Proverbs is a challenging book to interpret (to say the least - I'm reading it to my children at present).
4.Let's carry on giving parenting our best shot, loving the children and praying lots!

Al Shaw said...

Thanks for your comments.

I ought to make it clear that this post is not in any way an attempt to say all that could be said on the vast subject of Christian parenting.

Rather, it is an attempt to look at one verse only, which in itself can be a source of difficulty for parents.

Teaching children the word of God is of course an important part of the role; it's just that I don't think that Prov 22.6 is addressing that particular activity directly.