Tucked into one of the most common Scriptures on parenting is a foundational truth that is often overlooked. Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Usually we either focus on “the way he should go,” or on “when he is old he will come back to God (so don’t worry about his choices as a teenager). Sometimes we focus on the “train up” procedures themselves. Whatever our focus as we attempt to interpret and apply this verse, many of those whose children “turned out” read this verse and have feelings of smugness at their success. Others whose children didn’t “turn out” ponder this verse with feelings of guilt or shame. Those who are facing a teen in rebellion sometimes cling to this verse in the hopes that they will someday come back to God.
Rather than get hung up on how this verse makes us feel, or whether this proverb is meant to be a concrete truth or a general principle, I would like to zero in on one key element of the training spoken of in this verse, the trainer and his training. The subject of the training is elementary. It is training in righteousness. That most certainly is “the way he should go.” But what that training looks like is seldom pondered, and thus seldom practiced.
If we can understand what that training is to look like, the rest of the verse becomes much clearer. We know the subject of the training is holiness/righteousness. That certainly is “the way he should go.” The question is how do we go about the process of training? This is the only instance in Scripture where the Hebrew word hanak is translated “train up.”[i] It is usually translated “dedicate.” The literal root meaning of the word is to narrow. When used in the context of dedicating/initiating buildings it means to narrow down the use of the building to a specific use, such as a temple or palace. This is the only verse where the word is referring to an action taken on a person. It is interesting that the other places it is used it has to do with consecration, dedication, initiation. The concept found in this word is that of narrowing the child’s thinking in such a way that he chooses the right way to go. By putting this training into its historical context, it takes on a much more comprehensive and colorful meaning than the simplistic interpretations that see the training to mean to “stimulate desire,” or even to nurture, and discipline. Though “training” certainly includes those ideas, many times the power is taken from this Scripture by thinking of this training so simply. The training is often glanced over and the “promise” of a great, spiritual child is grabbed.
Looking back into this historical/cultural context we can see that a parent in Israel probably would not have taken the “training” to be simply something that just happened. This “training” is active (as opposed to passive), and required special effort from the trainer. Perhaps Solomon is using this word to cause the people to connect the job of parenting to the great amount of work and commitment it took to build the Temple. The Temple was very carefully built. It was tedious construction. A lot of sweat went into it. This same concept could be used when talking about the training of a soldier who is put through a rigorous process that results in his being equipped and dedicated to military service. That kind of training requires that the trainer, or builder have the experience of life in those things he is teaching. He must also have good stamina, the endurance to stay at it to the end. He must also have a high level of personal commitment to the end product, be that the development and commissioning of the soldier or the completion and dedication of a building. Buildings are built with sweat and effort. Soldiers are readied for battle with a great amount of sweat and effort poured into their training.
Taking this understanding of the trainer into the spiritual realm, the parent who desires to train and/or dedicate his child to live God’s way must have those same elements of spiritual experience, spiritual stamina, and spiritual commitment. These are all needed because it takes a lot of holy sweat and effort on the part of the parents to see the child grow up to serve God with all his heart. We will need to experience a walk with God that compels our children to follow along in their own spiritual journey. Time spent with God’s Word and in prayer is a priceless element in the parenting equation. How could we expect to have stamina (endurance) in our spiritual lives if we aren’t growing spiritually through the power of the Word and prayer? Our spiritual experience has a lot to do with our spiritual endurance. Our children watch us. They know what we are committed to. They know what we are passionate about. There should be no doubt in their minds that you are passionate about spiritual things. We should be so passionate about spiritual things that we are committed to the pursuit of spiritual growth in our own lives first. Our pursuit of our own spiritual growth should foster a commitment to our children’s spiritual growth. That commitment should be unwavering. There should be no TV, vacation, house, car, or job that compromises our commitment to spiritual growth. Experience, stamina, and commitment are vital elements in being prepared to train up our children.
There are late night talks and prayer. There are hours of prayer for the wellbeing of a child. A plan for instruction in righteousness takes time and energy to develop and implement. There will be many hours of comfort sacrificed for the spiritual and relational wellbeing of the children. It will take time, lots of time. Someone once said, “I have pictures of my children in my wallet where I used to have money.” It will cost financially. Ultimately it costs us. We must give of ourselves in this process of training up our children. “Training,” as a concept in Proverbs 22:6 is more about how we train than about what we train. The how is by holy sweat. The what is “the way he should go.”
[i] Gleason Archer, Jr. in Exposition of Specific Passages in the Book of Proverbs elaborates on some of these points.