What “Train Up a Child in the Way They Should Go” Actually Means

Fun topic for today, and that is the most famous parenting verse you probably hear ever quoted, especially in Christian circles. Well, probably only in Christian circles, because it’s from the scriptures. And that is, train up a child in the way he should go. Even when he is old, he will not depart from it. A lot of people know that, but if we lean into that, what does that mean? What does that look like? So Jeremy, what would you say?

Yeah. So this is a really important proverb, you guys. I think I wanted to take a minute just to sort of tease it out and just maybe point out a few things. If you haven’t heard this before, I just want to emphasize, it’s such a big deal that the Bible makes clear that the biggest, clearest responsibility in terms of what we need to give to our children uses this word train. And this is the reason by the way, you guys, Jeff and I created the Skill of Fatherhood course, we have a whole module on training kids. Most people actually don’t even have a training system for how to actually obey this proverb. And I think it’s really important to know exactly what your strategy is for training your children. And so, this is a big one and it’s very important. And so that’s a huge piece of this.

Where a lot of people get hung up on this verse is a couple of areas that I think can be really interesting to explore. One is the phrase, in the way he should go. So train up a child in the way he should go. This is the ESV version of the verse. So there’s two ways you can emphasize that line. It’s interesting. The obvious way is in the way he should go, right? So that means there is a way that is, this is I think most likely what the author intended. The whole Old Testament, all the Hebrew scriptures really emphasize this idea of the way of the Lord, really. There’s a way that God has for his people, and that it’s important that we train up our child in that way, the way that they should go.

It’s interesting, one of the things that’s happened in modern days, a lot of parents and parenting books have really emphasized a different word than should. What they’ll say is train up a child in the way he should go, which is to say that every child has their own way, right? And so, maybe the way that Sally should go is this direction and the way then Johnny should go is that direction.

Oh, that’s a good point.

And so, you need to know your child well enough to know which of the way that they … Now, I don’t personally think that’s likely to be the most, it’s not most likely that was what the author intended. Like I said, I think that it’s probably more likely they intended the first. I like that idea. Certainly, we should be doing that. We should be really being aware of the individual paths that God has for each of our children and be directing them. But that might be a little bit an intense way of individualizing the verse. But I think that that’s important.

The last thing I wanted to say about this verse is that it ends with this word. And even when he is old, he will not depart from it. And I think it’s really important just to point out, you guys, this is in the book of Proverbs and I do not believe these Proverbs are promises. These are really there to help us understand how wisdom works, generally. This is wisdom literature, and there’s all kinds of Proverbs that are the general way in which, the way the world works. That’s what the book of Proverbs is trying to get us to understand. What does it look like, the way that the world generally works? What is wise? There are always exceptions, though, to those generalizations.

And I think it’s important to point out because I do think that we have a tremendous ability to impact our kids and help them go in the correct way. I also think it’s important to say that because this is not a promise, certainly, kids could make a decision to depart from that way. Generally speaking, this will work out, if you do this. There are going to be exceptions. Those should not make us lose heart. Those should also not make us judge parents too harshly for the actions of their adult children. But those are a couple of the thoughts that I have when I think about this verse. What are your thoughts, Jeff?

Yeah, I think what I love too is these are ancient scriptures, right? And so, to think that over thousands of years across cultures, people have leaned into this universal truth or principle, like you said. Not that it’s a promise, but as a principle. And the last thing I would say is, what I love that this verse is implicitly giving you permission to do is put your kid on a trajectory, right? I think we think that’s bad. We think that’s evil. We think that’s controlling. Now, you can do that in a controlling way, I think, when you’re not spirit led. When you’re a little bit more legalistic or fundamentalist or a little bit more hardened in regards to trying to extract value from your kid in the sense that maybe you weren’t successful, so you want them to be, living vicariously.

There’s a lot of ways I can go off the deep end, right? But if you’re being spirit led, if you’re a disciple of Jesus, if you love Jesus, if you’re sensitive to him and you’re trying to lead your family in that intimacy and that sensitivity, then don’t be afraid to actually seek the Lord on your kid’s behalf and then put them on a trajectory, point them in a direction. Because it’s actually more evil, quote unquote, to actually give them no direction, right? A child literally needs direction. They need training. They need to be pointed in a particular way. So don’t be afraid to carve out that path, point that path out to your kid and put them on a trajectory.

And just like any trajectory, you can launch them, right, and then they can go somewhere else. And there’s something to be said of that as well, of what does that look like when a kid goes wayward or is maybe disobedient in a season? But don’t be afraid to actually take … You have permission to send your kid on a trajectory and the scriptures actually say that’s one of the best ways you can probably get your kid on the right path is by actually sending them on a particular trajectory.

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