A Formula for Success in Parenting?
NAU Proverbs 22:6 Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it.
This proverb throws down the gauntlet by employing a clear imperative – “train”. This gets our attention.
The text doesn’t say who is obliged to do the training. Presumably it must refer to whoever is responsible to raise the child. I can make some educated guesses about the identity of this responsible party. In normal circumstances, it is not the government; nor is it the community or village; it is not even the church it is not grandparents or aunts or uncle or brother or sister. Rather, in normal circumstances, it is the parents.
This proverb is one of the staple verses discussed by Christians when sorting out the whole business of raising children. I dare say that most Christian parents have come across this verse at some point in their journey with kids. So, let’s take a closer look.
Proverbs 22:6 is a proverb, not a promise. It doesn’t give us the truth about the subject comprehensively – just one piece. So, we must be careful not to build an entire philosophy of child training on this one verse.
“Train” (חָנָךְ) is used 4 other times in OT, always in the sense of dedicating or inaugurating a house or facility upon its initial use (Dt 20:5 (2x); 1 Kings 8:63; 2 Chron 7:5). In post biblical Aramaic, when the term is applied to people rather than buildings, it refers to someone who has already been trained and is officially entering service with all the accompanying responsibilities and privileges. So, the primary idea is that parents are to adequately prepare their children for entrance into adulthood.
A related word (חֵךְ) means mouth or palate (see Prov 8:7 and many passages in Job BDB 3241 and TWOT 692a). Consequently, some think that the verb “train” primarily describes an ancient practice described in Arabic literature of midwives who rub the palate of a newborn with oil or crushed dates in order to stimulate sucking. Thus, the basic notion of “train” is to motivate. This is a fascinating possibility but probably cannot be linguistically sustained especially since the Arabic writing post-dates Proverbs by 1000 years (see Net Bible for brief discussion).
“Child” (נָעַר) is a broad term referring to an unborn child (Judges 13:5-12), an infant (Ex 2:6), as well as a young adult (Joseph int Gen 37:2 or Shechem in Gen 34:19). Though kids of all ages need training, this text may have special reference to the instruction of older kids nearing adulthood - youths. The Talmud suggests up to age 24. This is only a guess; regardless, the focus likely is not on toddlers and infants.
“In the way he shall go” is literally “according to his way”. “Way” is here the course of life from the standpoint of manner, conduct, or behavior. There are perhaps four possibilities. 1) The moral or right way; the way he ought to go. Indeed, Proverbs itself speaks of the wise and the foolish way. 2) The natural way - the way that suits the child’s personality traits. This is a psychological approach. 3) The sinful way – letting a child go unchecked in self-expression. Let him follow his innate inclinations. Don’t inhibit him. Thus, this is a warning. 4) The correspondent way – the way that is befitting the status the child will have as a young adult. This may be driven somewhat by his God given interests and abilities. Previously I thought the right way (#1) was in view. However I have come to believe that the correspondent way (#4) is probably the best view because it best reflects the concept of “train” and best accounts for the follow-up expectation statement, “when he is old he will not depart from it.’(Hildebrandt paper).
“When he is old he will not depart from it”. When the child leaves home and establishes an independent life, he or she will likely continue in the way trained. However, given human disposition to rebellion against God, this outcome should be taken as an encouragement and not a guarantee.
So, here is the bottom line in my view. When the child is ready to enter adulthood he/she …1) should have been properly instructed at the various stages of development and in accord with his/her unique characteristics and interests 2) should be accorded respect and dignity of a young adult 3) should be given appropriate responsibility 4) should be sent out with celebration (see Hildebrandt 1988, p 3)
But unfortunately, this verse is often alluded to as an assurance that if a Christian parent does the right thing in raising his kids then the kids will turn out as solid believers. Just figure the formula which is most likely to work and then pursue it. Of course, if you can’t figure it out, there is no lack of “experts” who will be glad to tell you what to do. And many of zealots will freely quote Scripture and use spiritually sounding language as they passionately and boldly declare that their concepts work. You simply must get on board. However, I want to quietly but clearly state that there are no guarantees or magic formulae for bringing up kids. Anyone who suggests otherwise is misguided at best or deceitful at worst.
So, here are a few observations regarding formulaic thinking.
- A guarantee mentality misunderstands the doctrine of salvation.
If salvation is a sovereign act of God wherein He makes dead people alive; and if He is not bound by any except himself in this act; and if salvation is therefore a miracle of regeneration; then a child cannot be saved by his parents properly catechizing him in Christian truth at a young age; or sending him to a Christian school; or keeping him at home for school in order to closely control what he is exposed to; or exposing him to all the right influences, environments, and friends, or etc.
Nor can the child be saved by simply mouthing a magic prayer. He/she must exercise personal faith, given by God, and evidence such faith in his life. This is mysterious, not predictable.
Sadly, parents often place hope in something their son or daughter did as child, or a childhood profession (as young as age 3!), or baptism, or etc. And often these parents make these hopes into a major crisis.
So, we ought to expect that not all kids raised in a Christian home will also become believers. Example of Samuel: See 1 Sam 3:19 for a positive statement regarding Samuel’s godly life. No statements are made suggesting that he failed in parenting (unlike the implication regarding Eli 1 Sam 2:29 – but see v22-26 for opposite implication). Yet his sons were not godly like their father (1 Sam 8:1-3). Or note the sad history of good kings of Israel and Judah who were followed to the throne by one of their wicked sons.
The great responsibility of Christian parents is to continually expose their children to the gospel in a non-crisis atmosphere until they leave home. The focus must be on the process not the product.
- A guarantee mentality misunderstands the doctrine of man.
All men, including your kids, are dead in sins and totally unable to come to Christ (Eph 2:1-5; John 6:44). They are sinners at birth (Psalm 51:5) and they commit acts of sin (Rom 3:23).
Further, there are no innocent kids.
- A guarantee mentality misunderstands the doctrine of personal accountability.
Here is a key issue: Kids are responsible before God for their actions and life choices. I repeat, kids are accountable… not their parents. They will stand before God with personal identity apart from parents (Rom 14:12). This principle is clear in the OT as well (read Ezek 18:1-20 for a case of a righteous father and an unrighteous son and a case of an unrighteous father and a righteous son both demonstrating that God judges every person individually. Blame is not shared!) Note: apparently some in Ezekiel’s day were misapplying the teaching of Ex 20:5; 34:7 which teaches the consequences of sin to subsequent generations by suggesting that children were not responsible for their sin.
Parents must come to the place of accepting this notion of their children’s accountability. In fact, embracing this notion is liberating. But it is also sobering. We should be prompted to press the claims of the gospel and the concept of the judgment of God. After all, kids are free moral agents.
Remember, God will ultimately ask you about your responsibilities in bringing up your kids, not about your kids responsibility to respond to God and His truth. We must therefore take our responsibility seriously. We can do something about that!
What difference does this entire discussion make? It informs us regarding how to evaluate what we did or do.
- A guarantee mentality misunderstands the concept of success
- Definition: Success in raising kids is consistently doing what God says even if you don’t feel like it and in spite of the objections of your kids (“it is not fair’, “everyone else is …wearing, going, staying out until”, “you’re old fashioned”, “you hate me”).
- Do you really understand the definition?
- Is this definition really a lame attempt to duck responsibility?
- Can you parent in light of this definition and maintain a clear conscience?
- But if the kids don’t turn out “right” can you be successful?
- Many Christian parents cling to the false notion that life should be free of difficulties and trials. The thought is, “others, especially non-Christians, might expect trouble in life, but surely not me.” Or, “Because my kids are in the ditch, God must be mad at me.”
- However, the Bible instructs us that kids have a unique set of problems by virtue of their youth – “flee the evil desires of youth” (2 Tim 2:22). On the one hand we should not be surprised by out of control passions. Of course, on the other hand we should marvel at the power of the gospel! (Tripp 15) A side observation: it is okay to minister to people differently based on their stage of life or unique circumstances.
- We must conclude, “no matter how hard you try, there are going to be some causalities.” (Gage 31).
- We have forgotten the concept that suffering may be a gift from God. (Phil 1:29).
- We may have also forgotten that God is in control of every circumstance of your life (Eph 1:11) and that there are no accidents (Rom 8:28).
- This includes the big issues such as rebellion or forsaking the faith.
- But it also includes the small issues such as being cut from the team, or not having friends, or not being asked to a huge social event, or having to wear braces, or…
- The problem is that we often try to “fix it’ for our kids. We don’t want them to have any problems.
- Or our tendency is to make excuses for them (he/she was just having a bad day) or to blame someone else (the teacher, the coach, the pastor, the youth group).
- Small issues usually set the tone for how we deal with the bigger ones and life in general.
- Example: Scott getting cut from the Jr Hi basketball team. How was I going to respond?
- We may have further forgotten that God does not owe us happiness and in fact we don’t deserve it (Jer 17:9; Psa 15:2,3). If this is true, what are some of the possible reasons God may give you this gift of a wayward or difficult child? What lessons does God want to teach us? What good could come from it?
- A guarantee mentality misunderstands basic biblical parenting ideas
- Make your home a life lessons laboratory (Deut 6:7-9). Use everyday moments. Both spontaneous and planned are assumed. This should include teaching that is focused on the life applications.
- Restrain your kids (1 Sam 2:29 - Eli) – God must be first.
- Target the heart of your child (Luke 6:43-45)
- “Heart response and heart change are our focus because we know what controls the heart will control the life.” (Tripp 49)
- “This sin is bad, don’t do it brand of parenting forgets that sin is not only a matter of behavior, but a matter of the thoughts and motives of the heart as well. It fails to recognize that if the heart does not change, any behavioral changes that take place will be temporary and cosmetic, because they will not be attached to roots in the heart.” (Tripp 50) We are not dealing with animals.
- Model spiritual disciplines. Self-control, Bible reading, worship, and service are crucial.
- Expose your kids to Scripture at every opportunity. That means corporate worship, SS, and Youth Group are wise investments for your kids.
- Pray for and with your kids. Remember their issues and concerns.
- Encourage individual devotions. Provide materials. Plan times to check up on them. Speak of your own devotional experience.
- Use real life situations to apply Scriptures.
- Provide them with opportunities to serve.
- Be transparent. Always seek forgiveness when needed.
- Promote command orientation rather than feeling orientation. Elevate the authority of Scripture. You must model this yourself.
- Incorporate both structured control and instruction in a spiritual setting (See separate study of Eph 6:4).
- A guarantee mentality misunderstands genuine spirituality
- We are really talking here about how to gage a person’s relationship with the Lord. On what basis do we conclude that one person is more spiritually mature than another? Or how do we know that one person’s faith is real and another’s is phony?
- The high level principle is this: genuine spirituality is a matter of internals rather than externals.
- But, by nature of the case this is not always easy to discern and can be confusing.
- For instance, the church is required to make judgments based on external matters as the call to church discipline makes plain (1 Cor 5).
- And, the Scripture is clear that a genuine believer will be marked by life characteristics.
- Good works – Eph 2, James
- New creature – 2 Cor :17
- Fruit – (?? of repentance; by known by fruits
- Pagans can do right things and noble things
- Xxx whitened seplechure
- Pharisees – I never knew you Matt 7 but use below
- So, even though genuine believers will live differently, we cannot conclude that just because our kids are keeping a certain set of rules, can relate well to adults, are pleasant, care for the needy people, obey you and authority, are diligent in assigned tasks and school, memorize Scripture, like the Christian school or home school, enjoy Christian friends, and evidence other commendable traits, that they must really love the Lord. The road to hell is littered with such people (Matt 7). Many who exhibit these traits as kids no longer identify with Christianity in any form as young adults.
- Thus we must assume nothing. The jury is still out no matter what things look like externally today. Again, we must focus on the process not the product. We must look for heart change. We must pray for heart change. We appeal to the heart not the hands. We must eschew deadly legalism at all costs (Gal).
- A working definition of spirituality might be: insert
- A guarantee mentality misunderstands parenting goals.
The question is what should be our goals for our kids? As parents we must shoot for something. What is it? Granted, each kid is unique and thus specific goals will be different for each. But, are there any goals that we ought to adopt for all of our kids?
Question 1 of the Shorter Catechism provides a noble life goal. “What is the chief end of man? Answer. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” This should be the starting point for every Christian parent. We can build our parenting around this. The only issue is how do we parent to God’s glory?
But what goals can we set for our kids that are proper subsets of this larger goal of glorifying God.
- Specific goals to avoid (Tripp 31-38, 107-112)
That your kid respects you
That your kid its grateful for all you do for him/her
That your kid will make you proud of him/he (or, not embarrass you)
That your kid will seek your permission regarding his/her every decision
That your kid will be just like you
That your kid will stay out of trouble (p 110 Tripp)
- Specific goals to embrace
That you influence your kid to personal godliness (Tripp 113-127; 167-190) Might include several keys…
Use of spontaneous moments to teach spiritual truth
Prayer with and for
Model personal devotions
Grant and seek forgiveness
Speak positively about the Christian life and Christian leaders
Model godly character
Establish priorities and values
Engage in tangible ministry
That you impart practical wisdom to your kid (Tripp 128-140). This is much of what we refer to as issues of liberty, conviction, or conscience. There may not be clear directives in Scriptures. None-the-less decisions and choices must be made. Some tips…
Try to think like God and get your child to do so as well
Remember to clarify the difference between God’s directives and your opinions
Let your child make his own decision whenever possible
Don’t give up – you probably didn’t get it the first time either (use of money)
Don’t unload everything you know at one time
Always tie into Scripture as the basis for your advice
That you help your child interact with culture
Our culture is clearly ungodly. But Isolation not the answer. At least not biblically.
Like you, he/she must live in the world yet not be of the world
Like you, he/she must be salt and light (Matt 5:13-16)
That you instruct your kids regarding Bible doctrine. Remember, statistics show older kids from Christian homes are horribly ignorant of the Bible.
A note of caution is in order.
“It is hoped that those who use this (approach) will not misunderstand the nature of godliness (or spiritual maturity). On the one hand, godliness is not a sentimental gushing about one’s love of God while at the same time living a scandalous life. Loving God and doing as one pleases is a mark of spiritual immaturity. On the other hand, godliness is not the meticulous structuring of one’s life according to a set of certain biblical principles. This is nearly the same as deadly legalism.
The Christian’s driving passion should be to love and enjoy God. If we love God there is really no need for a principled approach to life. Rather our love will naturally result in a passion to please, honor, and obey this One we love….
Therefore, (parents) should avoid using this (approach) with the idea that, “if I can just convince my son or daughter to put these suggestion into practice they will be spiritually invigorated.”…(This approach) must not be viewed or used as a guidebook to spirituality.” (Ready Set Go 86)
© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2016. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.