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Written by Dr. Jim Dempsey

The first Scripture Christian parents will likely quote when asked about their duty is Proverbs 22:6:  “Train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”  Some parents see this as their ‘get out of jail free’ card for poor parenting.  In other words, if their kids stray they can simply trot out this verse and say, “we took them to church when they were little so they knew about Jesus.  It’s not our fault the way they turned out.”  These parents find feathery comfort in this verse; a universal promise guaranteeing success for minimal effort.  They let themselves off the hook too easily.

Other parents see this verse as a rock with which to bash themselves, assuming that they must have done something terribly wrong since their grown children turned their backs on their faith. They, too, read this verse as guaranteeing that good parenting will result in godly children. Their logic leads them to great guilt when their kids leave the faith. I’m one of those parents, and it’s a crushing weight that I’d love to shed. But can I do so and still honor Scripture? Doesn’t the verse seem pretty clear to promise ultimate success as a parent, if we trained our children ‘in the way they should go?’

I’ve heard the argument that a proverb is just ‘usually’ true. But having a high view of Scripture, I simply can’t buy that. Here’s what I believe the verse says now, with the added clarity of hindsight as a parent.

  1. The verse strategically uses the word ‘train’ and not ‘teach.’ Training is intentional, consistent, daily, and involves practice. As I look back, I can see stretches of my parenting that failed in these four aspects. The busy-ness of life, temptations to be lazy, and the deceptions of Satan took me off track, and my parenting suffered for it. I’m glad God forgives, but the truth still stands. The results still pain me. I can and do continue to pray, and I am hopeful because God has not forgotten my prodigal child.
  2. I see so clearly now that ‘they way he should go’ refers to training the heart of the child, rather than simply behavior. No parent knows exactly how their children will live their lives, what career path they will follow, or who they will marry. We can’t train toward those outcomes specifically. But we can aim to train our children’s hearts. The Bible (Prov. 4:23) explains the heart’s central role: “Above everything else, guard your heart, for it is the source of life’s consequences.” Our actions come directly out of our core of beliefs.
  3. Given these first two truths, the verse becomes plain. When we are diligent to train the heart, children will act on what has been built into their hearts. It comes out naturally because it is part of the DNA of the soul.

Yet there’s one other factor, and that’s the free wills of our children. In all the Proverbs, it’s clear that even a child has the freedom to follow the parent’s teaching or rebel against it. Proverb 22:6 tells us that IF a heart is trained, it will naturally follow that path. But with humans, the individual determines his willingness to be trained.

In the end, Proverb 22:6 absolves neither the parent nor the child. Each is responsible for part of the equation—parents to train the heart, children to receive the training provided to them. For help in training the heart, and in avoiding the lapses I suffered in parenting, read my book, Parenting Unchained.


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