‘Train up a child…’

20 February 2009

A friend in the USA emailed me about Proverbs 22:6 – ‘Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.’

He wrote, ‘Could you give me some pointers as to your thinking on this issue. In the heart of “evangelical America” people seem to be using this text as some kind of all-embracing get-out clause, for what they may or may not have done as Christian parents, and it makes me uncomfortable—and I’m not sure why.’

Here’s what I replied:

child rearingI’ve generally gone along with the traditional interpretation, which is that if parents build the right values and practices into their children from an early age, those children are likely to adhere to them even when they reach adulthood.

That seems to be what the verse fundamentally means. The Jesuits understood this and said something along the lines of ‘Give us a child until he is six, and he’ll be a Catholic for life.’

A friend of mine had an angle on it that was a bit different. He said it meant that parents should suss out early on what a child’s natural bent is, in terms of gifts and strengths, and encourage him along that path, then when he is older he will be able to exploit it to its fullest potential. There’s wisdom in that in its own right, of course, though I have to say I think it’s reading into this text something that is probably not there. Note, however, that ‘in the way he should go’ is literally, ‘according to his way’, and that’s what gave my friend his starting point.

Whatever line we take, the important thing is to recognise that proverbs like this are not promises or guarantees from God but simply wise observations about life that tend to be generally—but not universally—true. They provide, at best, very loose guidance.

Probably a majority of children from sound Christian homes either decide to follow Christ for themselves in due course, or at least live by broadly Christian standards even if they stop short of personal belief. But there are exceptions at both ends of the scale. You and I both, I’m sure, know parents who were hopeless by any standards and their kids have turned out to be models of Christian virtue and stability, and others who seemed to be first-class parents but their kids kicked over the traces and, in adulthood, had little or no time for Christ.

Ultimately, salvation (and the way of life associated with it) are ‘not of blood’. So Proverbs 22:6 shows a helpful part of the picture, but not the whole of it by any means.’

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