READ : Proverbs 22:6
Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.
Proverbs 22:6, RSV
“Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” At one level this familiar proverb sounds like homely folk wisdom. It simply describes the way things work. It reminds us that as the twig is bent, so grows the tree. Follow a certain formula, teach a child along particular lines, and you will shape the direction of his or her life. What is learned early in life will be lived out later on. From this perspective, parents are the fashioners, the shapers, the trainers. The child in adulthood will be the person the parents have formed.
If we look at it that way, the issues in child-rearing seem crystal clear. Responsibility for what children become is easy to assign. If the young ones adopt the values and lifestyle of the family, the parents have done it right. If the children, on the other hand, reject parental instruction, if they turn out to be non-conformists, rebels, then obviously the parents haven’t done their job. If they had, according to this reasoning, things would certainly have turned out better.
But this proverb, friends, represents more than common sense, more than shrewd observation of the human scene. It’s a word from God, a word of command and of promise, and the more we ponder it, the more we see its hidden depths.
HOW TO TRAIN A CHILD
How, for starters, is a child trained? Do the parents do it all? Or do other relatives play a part? Grandparents, aunts and uncles, older brothers and sisters? And what about teachers, coaches, child care professionals, babysitters? What about a young person’s peer group? Do these have anything to do with the training of a child?
All agree at least on this, that a child needs some kind of attention and direction. Another proverb says what all of us have observed: “A child left to himself brings his mother to shame” (Prov. 29:15). One expert on family life comments, “The important thing for the child is to be brought up by somebody. Before we worry about who it is, let it, please God, be somebody.” All agree that a child needs some kind of training to learn to behave well. In some areas, he needs it to behave at all. Any infant deprived of attention is likely to continue to be retarded in all forms of behavior. Children whom we call autistic, who are withdrawn, unrelating, uncommunicative, are often surrounded by adults who are strongly preoccupied with something else, the researchers tell us. Perhaps it is with distractions of a scientific, literary, or artistic nature. One of the worst tragedies for a child is to have no one on the other end of the see-saw, no one to relate to, no caregiver with whom to identify.
But let’s say now that there is someone bringing up this child, someone attempting to train him or her. How does that happen? How is it accomplished? Is it simply a matter of telling the child what to do? If that were the case, child training would be, as we say, “a piece of cake,” absurdly simple. Anyone can tell a child what to do. Many parents and caregivers do that almost incessantly. I remember reading of a family meal at which a visitor noticed that one particular child was being given repeated instruction. Amazed, the guest began to count: 120 commands within 40 minutes! Most of us would acknowledge that trainers need to do more than talk. Children have a remarkable capacity to ignore instructions and commands, especially when they come with bewildering rapidity. They grow weary of them, complain against them, or else simply block them from awareness.
Most would agree that parents must see to it that their instructions are obeyed. But how is that obedience secured? For some the answer lies in strict, consistent discipline. If children step out of line, they are chastened for it. If they continue to disobey, the punishment becomes more severe. You get obedience on this view by enforcing it. You train them by repeatedly telling them what to do and by seeing to it that they comply.
But is that all there is to it? Will that alone shape a child’s behavior along desired lines? Can we compel a child to love? Will total enforcement produce in him or her a zest for learning, a glad and grateful response to parental leadership?
Surely a child needs to know that he or she is loved and valued. As one European educator has put it, “Along with the maximum possible demands (that’s discipline) there must be the maximum possible respect.” The parent who trains a child needs to let that child know: “You belong to this family. You are important. You are someone special. You are competent. You can do it.” Unbending discipline, whatever its values, doesn’t guarantee all of that, does it?
And what about parental example? Doesn’t that play a part in child training? Someone has said that children are more in need of models than of critics. Parents are unconsciously training children all the time by their example. Children imbibe family values like they take in a mother’s milk. They are amazingly perceptive. They not only listen to what is said. Even more, they watch what is done. They feel what is expressed. Nothing so commends right living to a child as the cheerful, consistent display of it in the home.
Here is the great New Testament word about child training. It lets us read the ancient proverb in the light of the gospel. “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Apparently there can be a kind of parental discipline and instruction that angers and embitters a child, that is counter-productive to a father’s best intention. All discipline and instruction, we read, is to be “in the Lord.” All nurture and training is to be formed by the gospel. Even as we teach our children the right way, even as we insist on obedience, we are to express the love and care, the affirmation and acceptance, the forgiveness and mercy of our heavenly Father. We are to live out our lives before them in the Lord, in communion with Him, in obedience to Him, in the manifesting of His risen life. That’s the way to train up a child.
THE WAY HE SHOULD GO
And that points us also to the way a child should go. What does it mean, “train up a child in the way he should go”? Who decides the direction a child’s life should take? Is that completely up to the parents? Are they the ones who determine finally what is right and wrong, good and bad? Or is there some higher standard by which a child’s conduct is to be measured?
The assumption made throughout the Bible is that the way a child should go, the way an adult should live, is not for each person to determine alone. The God who made us, who knows and loves us, who has entered into covenant with us, has made known His will for our lives. God’s Word, in which He makes known His gracious will, is a marvelous gift to His people. They need not grope blindly for the right path. He has made His way plain. The Holy Spirit, speaking through the Scriptures, is continually saying to us, “This is the way; walk in it.” And that way, we learn in the pages of the New Testament, is more than commandments, more than an ethical code. God’s way is supremely revealed in a person, in Jesus Christ our Lord. In answer to His disciples’ question, “How can we know the way?” Jesus responded, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me” (Jn. 14:6).
To train up a child in the way he should go, from a Christian perspective, means more than teaching precepts and inculcating behaviors. To bring up children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord involves leading them toward and encouraging them in a relationship. We believe that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, that a reverent awareness of God, a trust in Him, a commitment to Him, is the great goal of child rearing. Christian parents seek to communicate to their children that the way of living they advocate for them is not simply parental preference but God’s purpose. They appeal ultimately not to their own authority but to His. Most of all, they seek to introduce their children to the Lord whose name is love, to the One who is both Master and Savior.
GOD’S FAITHFUL PROMISE
Now let’s look at the promise, “when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Many devout, dedicated parents have agonized over this. They have loved their children, taught them the gospel, endeavored to live Christianly before them. They have prayed for their sons and daughters that the Lord would touch their hearts. But the results have not, at least thus far, been what they had hoped. Some of their children show little interest in the gospel. They have not responded personally to the saving lordship of Christ in repentance and faith. They flout their parents’ values. Their lifestyle is anything but Christian. The parents are crushed with disappointment and with self-reproach. Where did they go wrong? All of us have enough realism to know that our parenting hasn’t been perfect and enough self-doubts to wonder if we’ve been adequate at all. Is it our fault that our children do not follow the Lord’s way? Does it show that our own commitment has been spurious, our prayers hollow and empty?
There is no easy way to respond to such painful questions. But before they blame themselves in an unqualified way, parents need to remember several things. For one, they are not the only shaping influences in the lives of their children. The longer I live, the more it is impressed on me that many things befall children over which parents have little or no control. Perhaps their inattention and their poor performance in school is related not to the lack of parental discipline but to minimal brain injury. Just after our son Billy was stricken with encephalitis, we moved to serve a new congregation. Billy was almost uncontrollably hyperactive and required various kind of medication to keep him at all stable. But there were some in our congregation who intimated to us that there was nothing wrong with Billy that a few good spankings wouldn’t correct.
Children sometimes meet with other kinds of trauma outside the family circle. They are abused and mistreated but too afraid and ashamed to tell anyone about it. They come under intense pressures in their peer groups. They experiment with drugs, perhaps, on a dare and are left permanently damaged. All of this affects their lives profoundly but may have nothing to do with inadequacies in parental care. Beyond that, the shaping influence of a parent can go just so far. We can teach our children, train our children, live before them a godly example, but we are never lords over their choices. They have their lives to live, their decisions to make. These words from “The Prophet” by Gibran have always impressed me about our children:
They come through you but not from you
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts
For they have their own thoughts.
In spite of all the shaping we may do as parents, there is a mystery of responsibility that belongs to the child.
But when I’ve said all that to struggling parents, I want to affirm for them at the same time the abiding truth of God’s promise: He is Lord of the covenant. He promises to be a God to us and to our children. He promises to work savingly in their hearts. Listen:
For I will pour water on the thirsty land and streams on the dry ground. I will pour my Spirit on your descendants and my blessing on your offspring (Isa. 44:3).
The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul that you may live (Deut. 30:60).
Those are God’s promises, and He is true to His Word. Whatever may be happening with our children right now, let’s cling to the faithful promise of our covenant God. Let’s believe that the seeds planted in faith, with love and prayer, will yet bring a harvest. Let’s trust Him that those children of ours, however they may be struggling and wandering now, will yet be drawn by the cords of a seeking love to walk in the Lord’s way.