Train Up a Child: Does God Offer a Lifetime Guarantee?: A Fresh Unpacking of Proverbs 22:6, Part 2

“Train up[1] a child in the way he should go, even when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Proverbs 22:6, Authorized Version

Countless dads and mums banked on what seemed like a lifetime guarantee. If they trained their children in the way they should go, those children would not depart from that way even[2] into old age. The lifetime guarantee failed to pan out. Too many parents, good dads and mums, have been bitterly disappointed and confused. As Solomon wrote, “the heart knows its own bitterness.”[3]


Proverbs 22:6 does state explicitly[1] that the promise is for life. But too many dedicated dads and mums discovered that their own parental experiences flatly contradicted the promise. Many children abandoned the way they should have gone for a period of time and, still other sons or daughters have never returned. Perhaps yours did too. It is not hard to find bitterly disappointed parents today. They were unprepared for the shock of the reckless lifestyles of their children. Words like "stunned" and "shocked" only tell a wee part of the grief. Perhaps you are one of them. You’re not alone.

Deficient Parenting?

If the traditional rendering of Proverbs 22:6 is believed for what it explicitly claims, and we do not use spin to dismiss its black-and-white approach, then the simple problem is deficient parenting. In other words, in the case of wandering children, blame the parents. It’s their fault. Case closed.

But, as I have suggested in Part 1 of this blog, there might be another way. Before we examine a fresh look at Proverbs 22:6, it is important to grapple with some glaring theological and lexical challenges with the traditional rendering of Proverbs 22:6.

First Challenge

First, as judged by the traditional rendering of Proverbs 22:6, God the Father was a deficient parent. God failed as a father. He is to blame for the rebellion of His children. He admits such when He says:

“I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me…Ah sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption. They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on Him.” Isaiah 1:2, 4

Israel, explicitly termed God’s ‘children,’ failed to go the way they should have gone. Instead, God’s children took the path they should not have gone.

So, despite being trained up by the perfect parent, God’s children rebelled against Him. Apparently the promise of Proverbs 22:6 did not apply to God. He’s an exception to His own rule. Some of God’s children remained wayward until the bitter end. So, if held to the standard of Proverbs 22:6, God’s parenting was deficient. It was God’s fault. Are we prepared to say that?

The contradiction of God’s promise and His experience as a parent calls for an honest explanation, not pastoral spin. Thoughtful people are troubled by the clash of Scripture and the cold reality of parenting. Dedicated parents deserve an answer rather than blame or dismissal. Even God’s own children failed to walk with Him.[2] This is a theological challenge to our understanding of Proverbs 22:6. And there is more.

Second Challenge

Secondly, the translators of the Authorized Version inserted a word that is absent in the original Hebrew text. That imported word is "should." In other words, without "should," the verse reads as follows: “in the way that he goes,” and not “in the way he should go.”

There are no other examples of this interpretive insert ("should") in the Hebrew Bible. So, why import a word that’s missing from the biblical text? Well, there’s no dark conspiracy behind it, no attempt by the translators to add to the Hebrew Bible. It was an honest attempt at interpreting a difficult verse.

Go Ahead, Make My Day

Without the additional word "should," the verse simply becomes a warning, a ironic command that should not be obeyed. That’s right. By using irony, the command is one that all parents, coaches, mentors, teachers, disciplers, youth Pastors, law-enforcement officers, and educators must not really fulfill.

It is similar to the sarcastic warning used by Clint Eastwood when, in a climactic moment, said to an escaping child-murderer on the verge of using his own firearm on Eastwood,  “Go ahead (sarcastic warning), make my day.” In other words, Eastwood warns, “Go ahead, pull your gun on me (sarcasm), because if you do, I will take pleasure in blowing your head off (warning). It will make my day!”

Clint Eastwood used sarcasm to get his warning across and to express utmost urgency to the child molester. This use of sarcasm—it seems--is what the translators were trying to avoid by inserting the word “should.” Without "should" Proverbs 22:6 becomes a warning using sarcasm as its attention grabber. But by importing the term "should," the sarcasm disappears.

Examples of Sarcasm

But there are other examples of the appropriate use of sarcasm[3] in Proverbs to get our attention and stress the urgency of the matter. Observe:

“Stop listening to instruction (use of sarcasm), my son, and you’ll stray from the words of knowledge (warning).” Proverbs 19:27

The son who reads this particular proverb should not do what is commanded. He should not stop listening to instruction. The use of sarcasm gets his attention, especially if the son has stopped listening to instruction. So, the sarcasm in the warning creates urgency. The proverb is a warning to start listening now! It seems appropriate to use sarcasm.

“A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest (use of sarcasm), and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man (warning).” Proverbs 24:33-34; 6:9-11

“Stolen water is sweet; food eaten in secret is delicious (use of sarcasm). But little do they know that the dead are there, and his guests are in the depths of the grave (warning).” Proverbs 9:18

Whether the problem is excessive sleep or stolen water, the use of sarcasm attracts the reader’s attention, especially if the youth are sleeping excessively or stealing water and food. The use of sarcasm grabs their attention and forges the proverb into an urgent warning. Get up out of bed now. Stop stealing now! Otherwise, (warning) there are painful consequences ahead for you!

So, without inserting "should" into the verse, Proverbs 22:6 becomes an unpleasant warning, using sarcasm as its attention grabber. Without "should," the verse is literally translated from the Hebrew Bible in the following way:

“Dedicate/start a child off according to his way (use of sarcasm), even when he is old, he will not depart from that way.”

What is a Child’s Way?

What, then, is a child’s way? The "way" in Proverbs[4] describes the innate and inborn proclivities of a certain type of individual. Proverbs warns about "the way of a fool"[5] and "the way of a wicked man."[6]

What is sarcastic about a child’s way according to the book of Proverbs? This is another way of asking: “What are children’s obvious inborn inclinations? What is a child’s natural disposition? What way do children normally prefer to go?”

The book of Proverbs doesn’t sweep the natural way of a child under the rug.  

Foolishness (having his own way) is tangled up in the heart of a child, but the rod of correction will drive him far from it” (from foolishness). Proverbs 22:15

“The rod of correction imparts wisdom; a child left to himself (pursuing his own way) brings disgrace to his mother.” Proverbs 29:15

“Discipline your son (when he chooses his foolish way rather than a wise way), for in that (discipline) there is hope; do not be a willing (refusing to discipline) party to his death (warning).” Proverbs 9:18

The Warning of Proverbs 22:6

Proverbs 22:6 then, I am suggesting, is a warning to all educators of children. It uses ironic sarcasm as its attention grabber. If at the beginning of a child’s life, we surrender our child-training strategy to suit the son’s foolish ways (sarcasm), that son will be grow to be a foolish adult (warning)”.

If at the start of a daughter’s life, parents cave in (sarcasm) to her endemic selfishness and impatient self-centeredness (her way), she’ll grow up to be a selfish woman (warning).

If we start giving in to a toddler’s temper tantrums (a child’s way) and refuse to apply painful discipline (sarcasm), then we can expect him to remain selfish his whole life, right into his older years (warning).

Abdicating Parental Responsibility

The tendency to abdicate parental responsibility and reinforce a child’s selfish ways is frequently illustrated at school or in the community. Parents make the foolish mistake of running interference for their children—protesting to principals, counselors, teachers, and coaches--that their son or daughter “just couldn’t have done what you say he did.” Law Enforcement officers face the same sort of whining from parents whose sons and daughters are arrested for criminal acts.

By running interference for the child who is guilty of violating school rules or state laws, the son or daughter’s self-gratifying inclination is reinforced. The roots of pride and entitlement grow thicker and deeper in his self-centered heart.

By quitting the hard work of discipline at the beginning (as toddlers), we reinforce the child’s natural way of selfishness. By abdicating our responsibility to lovingly discipline young children, we only add muscle to their sinful proclivities. The roots of selfishness and self-centeredness deepen and thicken each passing day.

Even when the child grows older, he or she will--apart from God’s supernatural intervention--remain a selfish, proud, entitled, easily angered, easily frustrated adult. Such men and women will not make anyone’s day, but only turn it into a relational nightmare.

Sarcasm and Spoiling

The writer’s use of sarcasm is a warning to educators and parents who are currently abdicating their responsibility to discipline children who act in selfish ways. The use of sarcasm hooks their attention and underscores the urgency.

Today, while the cement is still wet, stop spoiling your child. Get to work applying painful discipline now, before the cement hardens into concrete. Don’t procrastinate or be put off by whining. Pay the hard price of discipline now or someone else (spouse, children, employer, friends, co-workers) will pay a much higher price later on.

Selfish Grooves Grow Into Graves

If you let the child have his own way now as a pattern, he will demand his own way in marriage, in relationships, at work, at church, in discussions, in planning, on a team, and in parenting. The shallow, narrow groove of selfishness soon grows into a wider and deeper grave for others. The smallest package in the world is a man or woman wrapped up in his or her own way.  

The older people grow, the harder it is for them to change and become humble, focused on the interests and needs of other people. Habits are like roots. They grow deeper and thicker each day.[7]

God can supernaturally intervene in such people, but humility is difficult to achieve after teenage years and requires deep and long-lasting motivation and herculean effort. Jackhammers are needed to break up concrete. Fear is normally the only successful motivation, the fear of actually losing what they have and what they want.

This is why the apostle Peter urges young men to clothe themselves with humility.[8] This is also why Peter’s appeal to the Elders in the church (the existing shepherds of the flock)[9] accents a willing spirit to fulfill their tasks. Humble Elders consider it a privilege to shepherd men and women; they do so willingly. But self-centered Elders whine and procrastinate, “do I have to?”

Spoil the child in his youth, that is, dedicate him to a path that reinforces his way, his selfish way, and he’ll surely stink like a spoiled, rotten orange all his life. He’ll be a child living in an adult body, despite the glossy lipstick or thick whiskers. Go ahead, make his day, but you’ll ruin everyone else's.

How Do We Understand the Contradiction?

So, did God promise us "good kids" if we trained them right? Such a promise is wonderful to consider, even desirable to be true. But is such a promise even realistic when we take seriously a child’s foolish heart? God does not provide with us a lifetime guarantee.

Despite the problems associated with formulaic promises in parenting in the Christian community, other questions do beg. Perhaps you are asking them.

Who is Responsible?

How are we to understand the painful contradiction of rebellious children and good parents? Who is responsible? Should faithful parents feel guilty? Or, does Scripture ever promise that good parenting will produce good kids? Can effective parenting even be encapsulated in the span of just one verse? Are there other factors involved? These questions are worth pondering. Perhaps you are asking them yourself.

Hope and Comfort

Many good mums and dads feel guilty and suffer bitter disappointment. They were unprepared for the choices and lifestyles of their children. The storm came out of nowhere. They were unprepared due to a faulty understanding of Proverbs 22:6. Can they be comforted and understand what happened? They can indeed.

These questions and answers to them will constitute Part 3 (and final) of this blog post.

Don’t give up to bitterness or despair. Take hope. Jesus remains unflinchingly loyal to your children even if they turn their back on Him. And He remains unflinchingly loyal to you as well.

Thank you for reading.



[1] In the Authorized Version

[2] The father depicted in Luke 15 in Jesus’ story is meant to represent Israel’s God. Ironically, both of the father’s sons did not go the way they should have gone. The eldest acted like a Pharisee, angry and resentful of the father’s display of mercy and joy to his repentant younger brother. The younger brother consorted with prostitutes and wasted his money on parties. He hardly could be described as a child who went the way he should have gone. Both sons went the way they should not have gone. Judged by the standard of Proverbs 22:6, the problem of the two sons was deficient parenting. But that judgment flies in the face of how Luke depicts the father in the story.

[3] Perhaps the translators (we do not know their motives) were persuaded that the use of ironic sarcasm was not an appropriate technique utilized by Scriptural authors. But the use of sarcasm as a teaching tool is not uncommon in Scripture. For example, the Gospel of John is rife with examples of the use of ironic sarcasm to make a point. His Gospel is so full of irony that we might term it, “the Ironclad.” John winks at the reader all the way through his Gospel narrative, saying, “Did you get it?” Mark’s Gospel also has its share of ironic sarcasm. If you’ve learned the methods of Inductive Bible Study, they’re easy to spot. Some examples are hilarious.

[4] Proverbs is the larger context for interpreting verses within its compositional structure. Proverbs 22:1-9 is the immediate context for 22:6; the issue being discussed is the proper use of money; note “riches” in 22:1 and “a generous man” is 22:9.  Thus, understood in context, if parents reinforce a child’s selfish ways, he or she will use money for selfish purposes rather than than alleviating the needs of others.

[5] Proverbs 12:15

[6] Proverbs 2:12

[7][7] The time to remove the tree is when it is young and tender. We can pull up a freshly grown sprout with one hand. But, procrastinate and the sapling soon becomes a tree. Then, even 100 men could not pull up the tree. Don’t wait. Pull it now.

[8] See 1 Peter 5:5: “Young men, clothe yourselves with humility…”

[9] See 1 Peter 5:1-4 “Not because you must, but because you are willing.”