It's quite a familiar Scripture. We see it on wall plaques and baby cards. We quote it with well-intentioned hearts. And we try and explain it away when life's experiences seem to prove it wrong.
But what does it really mean?
Proverbs 22:6 - Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old, he will not depart from it.
What most of us have been taught - and what we would like to believe - that it means something like this: If we parents will do all the right stuff - whatever that may be - then we can be assured that our kids will turn out right, even if they veer off the right path temporarily.
That would be a nice promise to have in our back pocket, wouldn't it?
Except that's not what it means.
I am reading a really helpful book right now. In fact, I am going to be studying it with a group of women at our church, beginning next week, if you are in the area and can join us. The book is "Raising Grateful Kids in an Entitled World". Good stuff. Truly.
One of the most helpful things I've read so far is about this verse. Turns out, this verse is not a promise but rather a warning! If we were to go back to the original language it was penned in, Hebrew, we would see that it would be more accurately translated/understood as "train up a child according to his way and when he is old, he will not depart from it".
Rather than assuring us a desirable outcome to positive parenting, it is warning us that if we give in to our child (training him according to his sinful, willful, unwise, natural way), if we forego the difficult parts of parenting and discipline, we will actually reinforce the natural, sinful inclinations we all have since birth. And reinforce them to the degree that (except for an encounter with God's supernatural change) those patterns and behaviors will continue throughout his life. In other words, kids are not going to "mature out" of natural negative, destructive patterns of behavior. Without guidance and training, those tantrums at two will morph into ones that are even less desirable throughout his or her life.
What a huge difference! Instead of a nice, tidy (and untrue) promise, that there is some formula for child-rearing that will guarantee us great kids, this is a warning of what will happen if we don't parent against the natural desires of our children! I don't think we can assume this verse is referring to salvation - I believe it is more about the behavior we are born to naturally display.
Instead of being frightened by this warning, though, I am actually encouraged. Deep inside, we know this warning is true. And most every parent I know is heeding it. Striving hard to train their children against the natural bents of selfishness and laziness and greed. Pressing hard to develop in them, instead, the fruit of God's work of grace in their lives (see I Corinthians 15:10 for the basis of this paradox - labor and grace as partners! :) )
Yes, this is actually encouraging. Because it's Truth. There is nothing we can do as parents that will guarantee our kids are going to grow up and love God. Because, in spite of all our work, each child has the God-given gift of free will. And no matter how we might want to change that, we cannot control their responses. We might "do everything right" and they very well may ultimately reject the Truth we hold so dear. I've seen it happen. You have, too. Think about it - we have lived it, haven't we? We have the perfect Heavenly Father - He parents us with perfect love and mercy and grace and justice...and we still rebel. What is true of our Heavenly parenting is certainly true in the earthly realm.
But it is encouraging to know that all God expects from us as parents is to do our job faithfully. To train against the natural bent of a child, to discipline with love and grace and mercy, to seek Him for wisdom and strength, to teach Truth...and know the rest is up to the child.
And to God.
Never discount the work of our Heavenly Father, who loves the child He has called us to parent even more than we do. And, He takes our meager, fragile efforts and our humble prayers, and He is always at work on their behalf. Doing more than we can ask or imagine.
In their lives...and in ours.