What does it mean to 'train up a child in the way he should go' (Proverbs 22:6)?Proverbs 22:6 states, "Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it." Looking at the original Hebrew words in this verse and reading other passages of Scripture that discuss raising children and the concept of discipline can help readers understand what this particular proverb means and how to put it into practice.
The Hebrew word for "train up" in this verse is hanak, which comes from a root word meaning "to rub the palate of an infant with chewed up dates or oil in preparation for suckling." It is a pleasurable experience that prepares a baby to properly latch while breastfeeding. This concept of training is to provide experiences that prepare a child to perform the tasks necessary for a physically, spiritually, socially, and emotionally healthy life as an adult. This type of training shares the concept of helping a horse get used to wearing a bit in its mouth and learning to interpret the commands of its master so that it becomes a submissive and useful horse who fulfills its potential and brings great joy and pleasure to its master. In the same way, a child needs guidance and instruction in how to become submissive to the Lord and live out his God-given potential.
Another meaning of the word hanak is "to dedicate or consecrate," which is how the word is used the three other times it appears in Scripture (Deuteronomy 20:5; 1 Kings 8:68; 2 Chronicles 7:5). It is important to remember that each child is a gift from God and a parent's responsibility is to commit that child to the Lord's will (1 Samuel 1:28; Exodus 13:2; Psalm 37:5; 127:3; Proverbs 16:3). The training of a child should serve the purpose of preparing them to serve the Lord.
God did provide some practical ways in the book of Deuteronomy to train up a child according to His will. First, a parent must live out God's commands in his or her own life. Moses said that he taught the Israelites God's commands "so that you may do them in the land where you are going over to take possession of it, so that you, your son, and your grandson will fear the LORD your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged" (Deuteronomy 6:1b-2 NASB). Following God's commands in our own lives engenders a fear of God in our children's lives.
Moses went on to say, "And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates" (Deuteronomy 6:6–9). So first, a parent must know God's Word in his or her own heart (Deuteronomy 6:6). Then, he or she must instruct the children in an ongoing fashion throughout the entirety of each day (Deuteronomy 6:7). Finally, a parent should prioritize the accessibility of Scripture within the home (Deuteronomy 6:9). With these steps of knowing Scripture, living out God's commands, diligently teaching children, and making sure they have access to Scripture for themselves a parent will train children to serve God.
Training a child by giving him experiences that prepare him to lead a life submitted to the Lord as an adult would also include the concept of discipline. Proverbs 3:12 states, "For whom the LORD loves He disciplines, Just as a father disciplines the son in whom he delights" (NASB). The author of Hebrews echoes, "'For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives'…he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it" (Hebrews 12:6, 10b–11). Since God disciplines His followers, parents should model to their children what this loving discipline looks like to prepare their children to submit to God's discipline later in life. While discipline "seems painful," it is important to remember "that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance" (Romans 2:4). A parent will need God's direction to know when a child may need a more severe consequence in order to learn an important lesson or when a child might need a generous extension of grace in order to engender a repentant heart.
This reliance on God's wisdom for each individual child and situation is actually made clear in the grammar of the rest of the verse in Proverbs 22:6. The command is to "train up a [singular] child in the [singular] way he [individually] should go." The command is not to train up all children in the one way all children should go, but rather to discern "the way" for each singular child.
The Hebrew word for "the way" in this verse is derek, which comes from a root word meaning "to tread or walk" so it means "a road, course of life, mode of action, manner, or journey." Each child's journey through life will be unique. Paul reminded believers, "For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us" (Romans 12:4–6a). Each child will have different gifts and a different calling based on the unique personality and life experiences that God has brought to that child.
Another meaning of the root word for "the way" is "to string a bow by treading on it in bending." This imagery of bending a bow is repeated in Psalm 127 when the psalmist wrote, "Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one's youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!" (Psalm 127:3–5a). Children are like arrows released to fly when they reach maturity, and the training of their childhoods is like the bending of the bow. How far to bend the bow and what direction to aim all depend on where God calls that arrow to fly and what purpose it is to serve. Some arrows are used in war to protect against enemies, some are used in hunting to provide sustenance for the community, and some are used in target practice to increase the strength and skill of the army. The bend and direction of the bow will be unique in each case, and the training of each child should be also.
The remainder of the verse in Proverbs states, "even when he is old he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6). Moses told the Israelites, "Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law" (Deuteronomy 32:46). The expectation was that teaching their children would lead to the next generation also living out God's commands. In his research, George Barna has found, "In assessing the impact of churches, schools, and parents, it is the latter who have the most dramatic personal influence on a child" (Barna, George. Revolutionary Parenting: What the Research Shows Really Works. Tyndale House Publishers, 2010, introduction).
Parents and the training they provide do influence how their children choose to live. However, children are also individuals with their own will and fallen sin nature. God rebuked Eli the priest for not properly training up his sons who "were worthless men. They did not know the LORD" (1 Samuel 2:12; see 1 Samuel 3:13). However, Eli's successor Samuel also raised sons who "did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice" and yet, Samuel was not rebuked by God (1 Samuel 8:3). Because Samuel is not confronted about his sons, one can assume that he did properly train up his sons, but that they chose to go a different way. God declared in Ezekiel 18:20, "The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son." So parents do not bear responsibility for the choices of their children, but they do bear responsibility for their own choices in how they raise their children. Training each child to submit to God in his/her own individual journey will certainly increase the likelihood that a child will not depart from following God, but, as evidenced by Samuel, it is no guarantee. Here it is important to remember that proverbs are general case scenarios, not promises or prophesies.
When a grown child strays, parents can be encouraged that God is "not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). When the nation of Israel needed to repent, God said, "With weeping they shall come, and with pleas for mercy I will lead them back, I will make them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble, for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn" (Jeremiah 31:9). God is the perfect Father when our own parenting attempts fail and He will continue to lovingly pursue children who are still in need of salvation. In the meantime, we can seek God's wisdom in how best to train up each child in the way that child should go so as to best prepare the child for service to the Lord.
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