Parenting is no easy task. Charles Spurgeon once said, “He who thinks it easy to bring up a family never had one of his own. A mother who trains her children aright had need be wiser than Solomon, for his son turned out a fool.”
Thankfully, God has not left parents to grope about for advice in their exalted task. Scripture is full of guidance. However, it seems that one of the most commonly-quoted parenting verses is frequently subjected to misunderstanding.
“Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). (ESV, NASB)
The verse is predominantly understood in a few ways.
- The verse is a promise of blessing consequent of godly parenting.
In other words, if a parent raises a child up according to how he should be raised (e.g. hearing the gospel, godliness, godly example), then that child will trust in Christ and live a godly life even into old age. This rendering has hampered many a parent as they watch perplexed when their child appears to defy their godly parenting. Many have understandably wondered, “When will he/she turn back to the way he should go?”
- The verse is not a blanket guarantee, but a general observation consequent of godly parenting.
In other words, if a parent raises a child in godliness, though it is not guaranteed that the child will embrace Christ and live accordingly into adulthood, it is likely that they will. This interpretation maintains the correct idea that Proverbs are not absolute guarantees in life, but observations generally true to life.
- The verse encourages parents to train children in age-appropriate ways and/or according to their specific giftedness.
In other words, the verse is an encouragement to raise a child according to his/her stage in life, while observing respective God-given gifts and abilities. Thus, the child should be trained in the way that he/she, specifically, should go as God has sovereignly wired them. If they do “not depart from” that “way,” then they will thrive in those particular gifts and abilities (e.g. vocation).
However, it is doubtful that these interpretations of Proverbs 22:6 are correct. The verse is not likely a general promise of blessing consequent of godly training and parenting, but a general warning consequent of letting a child live according to his/her natural, selfish desires.
Thus, a more likely translation is something like, “Start out/begin a child in his own way; even when he is old, he will not depart from it.” The idea of the verse would be, “If you raise your child in a way that allows them to continue in their natural, self-centered desires, getting their own way, then they will grow up fully-given to self-centeredness.”
Several reasons clue us in as to why the verse should be understood as a warning:
1. The view which sees “his way” as age-appropriate or God-given giftedness does not seem to the context of the verse, Proverbs, or Scripture as a whole.
As far as age-appropriateness goes, Dan Phillips rightly points out that training a child according to his age does not fit with the idea of him not departing from it “even when he is old” (God’s Wisdom in Proverbs, 361). One would not wish their child to continue in their nascent training as a 50-year old.
The understanding of “his way” as a God-given giftedness/personality does not fit either. Often parents do not know their child’s particular vocational knack. How many times have parents said things like, “I think Johnny will grow up to be an athlete,” and Johnny ends up writing code? This approach almost says, “Well, hopefully you can identify their existing giftedness, according to their personality traits, and raise them accordingly.”
That understanding is too narrow when it comes to parenting and Proverbs. The context of parenting in Proverbs seems to focus less on identifying vocation, personality, or skills, and more on shaping character and discipline. Similarly, this understanding of the verse seems to be colored by an overly psychologized interpretation that is inconsistent with Scripture.
2. The phrase “he should go” does not exist in the original language, nor is it implied.
The phrase, “in the way he should go,” suggests the way of life which is right before God. The “should” advocates a moral “ought.” However, there is no “he should go” in the original.
Then why is it included in many English translations?
Among English translations, it’s likely that the word “should” first appeared in the KJV. Why did they include the word? Hard to say exactly. But, Proverbs 22:6 does not occur in many traditions of the Septuagint. When Jerome produced the Vulgate translation late in the fourth century, he prefaced the verse with, “It is a proverb:”, then translated it, “A young man, according to his way, even when he is old, will not depart from it.” Douglas Stuart proposes that Jerome included the preface due to the missing Proverb in various Septuagint translations, as a way to ensure the reader that it is canonical (Bib. Sac. 171 (July-Sept. 2014): 269).
Further, Stuart suggests that the KJV translators inserted the phrase, “in the way he should go” in an effort to clarify what they supposed was the meaning of the verse, though unsubstantiated from the Hebrew. In any case, once the phrase made it into the KJV, it seems that many other English translations followed in step (e.g. ASV, NIV, GNT, HCSB, NET, CEB, NKJV, ESV, NASB). And, once a translation becomes widely held, it is difficult to reverse the momentum, hence the popular rendering of Proverbs 22:6. Translations in other languages, for example, in French, have even rendered the verse similarly (e.g. BDS, LSG, NEG1979).
Whatever translational reasoning occurred, the phrase “he should go” does not occur in the Hebrew text. Consequently, it should not be inserted into the English. Instead, the Hebrew phrase, עַל־פִּ֣י דַרְכֹּ֑ו, literally reads “according to,” or, “in,” “his own way.” But, to whom does “his” refer? The antecedent is the child.
Further, it is debatable if the Hebrew word חֲנֹ֣ךְ should be rendered, “Train up.” Phillips gives a thorough discussion of the word, demonstrating it’s better translated, “start out” or “begin” (367-8).
Thus, the verse is better rendered something like, “Start out/begin a child according to his own way; even when he is old, he will not depart from it.” But, is God commanding a parenting which bows to the whims of the child’s way? Obviously not. The command is to be understood as a warning of a child left unparented. And, as the next point demonstrates, this fits well into the context of Proverbs.
3. The interpretation as a general warning seems to be more contextually consistent with the many cautions in Proverbs.
The book of Proverbs has the gravity of depravity running through nearly every verse. In the book, the way of the fool is not unlikely, but inevitable, apart from diligent exertion in godly wisdom and discipline. To end up as the fool in Proverbs, one must simply do nothing; go the way of their nature.
Thus, the fool is the individual who goes his own way in life (Prov. 12:15). He does things his way. He is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who can answer sensibly (Prov. 26:16). He cannot receive reproof (cf. Prov. 15:5, 12) because he trusts in his own way and in his own heart above his God (Prov. 3:5-7, 28:26). Everything in Proverbs cries out, “Do not let yourself or your children follow the natural human inclination!” To “let go and let God” in Proverbs would be catastrophic.
In that context, the many Proverbs pertaining to children and parenting make sense. For example, Proverbs begins with an introductory exhortation to sons, warning them to not go the way of the wicked (Prov. 1:8-19). Children desperately need the wise, godly counsel of their parents because (cf. Prov. 2:1-11) because they come pre-packed with utter foolishness (Prov. 22:15). All of us enter the world as hard-wired fools. Thus, their own way will lead to destruction of self, family, and society.
Parental correction, then, is commended in Proverbs as God’s means of grace for children (cf. Prov. 19:18, 22:15b). Though not bringing regeneration, parents do a real work of deterring foolishness (Prov. 20:30, 23:14). A child’s own way needs to be driven from him. And, as Derek Kidner writes, “It will take more than words to dislodge it” (Proverbs, 47). Parental love will mean the infliction of pain (Prov. 13:24b). To refuse the child the rod is a form of hate (Prov. 13:24a). God’s merciful implement to bring significant restraint to the catastrophe of human depravity is the biblical administering of the rod. A child who gets his own way will end up a living disgrace to his family (Prov. 29:15).
So, the context of parenting in Proverbs leans more towards warnings pertaining to depravity’s consequences. The interpretation of Proverbs 22:6 as a general warning seems to be more contextually consistent with the many cautions regarding depravity in Proverbs.
4. The interpretation as a general warning seems to be contextually consistent with the biblical understanding of depravity.
Every human being enters the world opposed to God (Ps. 51:5). When God observed the pre-flood population, he saw that “every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). Biblical books such as Judges do humanity great good by answering the question, “What will a population look like who gets their own way?” Apart from God’s grace in regeneration, all humanity will do and seek unrighteousness (Rom. 3:10-12). Therefore, anyone left to themselves will only deepen in sin.
Consequently, the phrase, “according to his own way” in Proverbs 22:6 could not be referring to a righteous way, but unrighteous. It stands to reason, then, that the absence of the phrase “the way he should go” and the presence of “according to his way” in Proverbs 22:6 would favor a meaning which warns against the sinful direction which a child will naturally take into adulthood when left unhindered.
5. Other exegetes have understood Proverbs 22:6 as a warning in light of depravity.
Though not many. A few English translations render the verse without the phrase “in the way he should go.” For example, the Knox Bible reads, “There is a proverb; a boy will keep the course he has begun; even when he grows old, he will not leave it.” The Lexham Bible reads, “Train the child concerning his way; even when he is old, he will not stray from it.”
Richard Clifford appropriately paraphrases the verse, “Let a boy do what he wants and he’ll grow up to be a self-willed adult incapable of change!” (Proverbs: A Commentary, 196).
Jay Adams writes of Proverbs 22:6:
“[T]he passage reads, ‘train up a child after the manner of his way,’ that is, after the standard or manner in which he wants to be trained. The verse stands not as a promise, but as a warning to parents that if they allow a child to train himself after his own wishes they should not expect him to want to change these patterns when he matures. Children are born sinners and when allowed to follow their own wishes will naturally develop sinful habit responses” (Competent to Counsel, 158).
Others have taken the warning view, such as Douglas Stuart and Saadia ben Yosef (Bib. Sac. 171 (July-Sept. 2014): 266-273), Ralpag (J.H. Greenstone, Proverbs with Commentary, 196), and Dan Phillips (God’s Wisdom in Proverbs, 353-79). Phillips’ commentary on Proverbs (a must for your library) contains a helpful, 26-page discussion devoted entirely to the issue.
More could be said regarding this reconsideration of Proverbs 22:6. The common translation, “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6), should omit the phrase “the way he should go.” Instead, the English translation ought to read something like, “Start out a child in his own way, and even when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
The verse is not a promise of blessing consequent of godly training and parenting, but a warning against letting a child live according to his/her natural, sinful desires. In addition to grammatical reasons, this understanding seems to better fit the context of Proverbs and Scripture as a whole.
- A parenting method which does not implement biblical discipline and instruction risks leaving the child to his own, depraved way. The child’s sinful nature will drive him towards increasingly destructive and enslaving manifestations of self-centeredness.
- Parents demonstrate love towards their children (despite a child’s potential protest) when they implement God’s kind of discipline and instruction. Though parents cannot ensure regeneration, they can incrementally decrease the child’s destructive, self-willed tendencies, thus saving him from going his own way.
- Provided a child was not left to his own way, Proverbs 22:6 may not be used to blame parents should the child go astray. Fathers and mothers are called to parent with the highest goal of parenting in a way that pleases God (cf. 1 Cor. 10:31, 2 Cor 5:9), and leave the results up to him. If a child rebels, it is in spite of good parenting, not because of it.
- Should a child/children repent and follow Christ, parents can give glory to God for using their imperfect efforts to discipline and instruct the child in the Lord.