Train up a child in the way he should go,
Even when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)
Proverbs 22:6 is probably the best-known passage on the issue of childrearing and, ironically, the most misunderstood. One classic interpretation of this proverb goes this way:
Be sure your kids attend Sunday school and church regularly. Teach your children to know and obey the Ten Commandments; teach them to pray at mealtime, bedtime, and for emergencies. And be sure to feed them a steady diet of Bible verses. Do this early on because—watch out!—teenage rebellion, where they will sow a lot of wild oats, will detour their spiritual journey. When their fling is over, they’ll come back to God. You can count on it because this verse has God’s promise on it.
The classic interpretation has two major strikes against it. First, it fails to appreciate the very colorful, intricate word-pictures used by the Hebrew poet. Second, it doesn’t hold true experientially. Some young people have rebelled and returned, but many others never returned, choosing instead to pursue their sin to the grave.
Another interpretation suggests that parents have two options to present their children: the righteous, wise path or the destructive, foolish path. Send them down the righteous road and they’ll enjoy a long, righteous life. Not exactly sage advice. Nor very useful. Wisdom usually offers insight that is less obvious.
A better interpretation of this verse begins with an appreciation for the complexity of the poet’s use of the Hebrew language. This simple, eight-word couplet drips with poetic allusion and metaphor, conveying practical, comforting wisdom that no parent can afford to miss. The most important of these lessons can be found in two terms.
The Hebrew word hanakh means “to dedicate” or “to consecrate.” It’s used only four times in the Old Testament, three times in reference to dedicating a building and once of a child in Proverbs 22:6. In several Semitic languages, it stems from a term related to the roof or lower part of the mouth. An Arabic verb, a very close cousin to hanakh, pictures the custom of a midwife dipping her finger into a pool of crushed dates in order to massage the palate and gums of a newborn. This encouraged the baby’s sucking instinct so that nursing could begin as soon as possible. In other words, she stimulated the baby’s gums in order to encourage the kind of behavior that would benefit the child. She wisely and deftly utilized the baby’s natural instinct to guide him toward what is best.
The best parental training is accomplished when we opt for inspiration instead of coercion. We do this by discovering the child’s natural desires and unique abilities and by encouraging the behavior that will allow him or her to develop accordingly.
This is not to say that we merely allow children to do as they please or that we should avoid correction. A term similar to hanakh in closely related languages relates to the training of a horse. This image pictures a horse’s bridle, which subdues the horse for the purpose of directing its natural energies without breaking its spirit. Notice, however, that the bridle is not a yoke. Only a novice puts a rope in a horse’s mouth to dominate it. Experienced riders know that the horse’s bit is a point of contact in a relationship with the animal. Horses want to run because God gave them a desire to fulfill their created purpose. A wise, caring rider uses the bit and the reins to help the horse achieve its purpose safely and effectively.
The term hanakh mingles the ideas of “dedicate,” “mouth,” “make submissive,” and “make experienced.”
In the Way He Should Go
This is probably the most debated phrase in the proverb. The Hebrew is quite simply “in accordance with his way” or, even more literally, “upon the mouth of his way” (there’s the image of mouth again), but translating it may not be so simple. As stated earlier, some would argue that the book of Proverbs suggests only two ways that a person can go: the way of the wise or the way of the fool. And in a broad sense, that’s right. But the writer’s artful use of language tells us that his advice goes far beyond the obvious.
The key Hebrew word in the phrase is derek, or “way.” It can refer to a literal way, such as a road, or it can be less literal and refer to the manner in which something acts, as it does in Proverbs 30:18-19:
There are three things which are too wonderful for me,
Four which I do not understand:
The way of an eagle in the sky,
The way of a serpent on a rock,
The way of a ship in the middle of the sea,
And the way of a man with a maid.
In each of these, the term “way” refers to a characteristic manner. We are to train a child according to his or her characteristic manner. Some will be artistic, others athletic, and still others academic. One may be strong-willed, and another compliant. One child can be encouraged by rewards or recognition, while another couldn’t care less.
Look at the rich imagery and wisdom packed into a single proverb. “Training up” calls for a relationship in which parent and child dedicate themselves to a shared purpose, with all the privileges and responsibilities that go along with it. The parent finds ways to encourage behavior that makes everyone happy and satisfies the child’s deepest needs. And it involves guiding a wild spirit in order to give it purpose and direction.
We receive each child from the hand of God, not as a malleable lump of clay to be molded in whatever way we see fit, but as a unique, distinctive person with a destiny. We are to honor God’s creation of this one-of-a-kind individual by adapting our training to his or her characteristic manner. To fight it is to fight God’s creation.
Instead, study your children by developing an intimate relationship with each one. Help each child discover his or her road—the path he or she was created to follow. Then ask God to help you make the most of your child’s natural tendencies so that he or she can live in harmony with God’s design. And when maturity comes, his or her success will be a legacy you can enjoy together.