Raising Christian Children: Does God Offer a Lifetime Guarantee? Proverbs 22:6, Part 3
How are we to understand the painful contradiction of wayward children and good parents? Who is responsible for the failure? Should faithful parents feel guilty when their children choose an entirely different moral inclination? Does Scripture even promise that good parenting will guarantee a wise trajectory for children? Are there other factors involved in the future welfare of a son or daughter?
Proverbs 22:6 is a Warning
In view of the countless parents—good parents—whose children strayed from the path of wisdom, and instead took a right turn down a foolish road, these questions are worth pondering and should not be ignored. I’ve suggested that Proverbs 22:6 is a case of a commonly used literary device known as ironic sarcasm:
“Dedicate a child, orient him on a path according to his way—(his endemic, selfish inclination)--even when he is old, he will not depart from it (his selfish way).”
Understood this way, Proverbs 22:6 is a warning to parents and educators not to spoil their children, not to quit the hard work of loving discipline, but to adjust their parenting strategy to actively combat a son’s or daughter’s sinful, selfish disposition. If the warning goes unheeded, well, then, ironic sarcasm has the last laugh.
Catch the irony: “Dedicate, start a child on the road that reinforces his self-centered inclinations—let him have his way—and he will continue on that foolish self-centered path throughout life.”
Solomon warns parents and educators that if they cave in to a child’s selfish ways, his self-centered disposition will be reinforced, the wet cement of self-gratification will harden into the concrete of entitlement and pride; the son or daughter will walk on that self-focused trajectory through life, even into old age.
Solomon uses sarcastic irony to grab parents’ attention and to underscore the urgency of acting today while the cement is still wet. Children’s hearts, like mixed concrete, inexorably harden with age. Shape the heart while it’s still soft and pliable. Procrastinate or remain intimidated by a two-year-old’s anger, and you’ll have to use a jackhammer to change Johnny’s hard heart.
Any Comfort for Parents?
So, if Proverbs 22:6 should not be understood as a lifetime warranty for “good behavior,” then, how are we to make sense of the distressing contradiction of good parents and wayward children? What comfort can you find if you have done your best to be a dedicated and loving parent, but your son or daughter has abandoned the faith or steered his life onto a muddy road of foolishness? Are you responsible?
Proverbs: a Moral Compass for Youth
First, it is important to understand that Proverbs is a moral compass addressed specifically to the inexperienced and youth (1:1-6), not educators or parents. Observe Solomon’s introduction:
“The proverbs of Solomon…for teaching prudence to the inexperienced, knowledge and discretion to a young man…” Proverbs 1:1, 4
If the educator or the parent were ultimately responsible for the moral choices of the youth under their care, there would be no point in addressing the entire book to youth. The book of Proverbs would be unnecessary. God could have left this “youth compass” out of the inspired biblical canon if educators and parents were ultimately responsible for the final outcome.
But God did include Proverbs and addressed an entire “book” to teaching the way of wisdom to youth. The youth are warned early on that if they fail to listen to the wisdom of parents and fear God, calamity and trouble will crash into their lives and no one will be able to rescue them. The youth will suffer the consequences.
“Then they will call me (wisdom),
but I won’t answer;
they will search for me,
but won’t find me.”
That fact alone ought to give parents pause before they beat themselves up for their children’s failures. I know, it’s easy to do. But Solomon warns the youth, not the parents, about the future danger of refusing to listen to wisdom.
Youth are Free to Make Choices
Second, the book of Proverbs recognizes the freedom of youth to choose and make their own moral pathways as well as accenting the hard reality of suffering the consequences of those choices. Observe:
“My son, if sinners entice you, don’t be persuaded (it’s a choice). If they say, ‘Come with us. Let’s set an ambush and kill someone. Let’s attack some innocent person just for fun. Let’s swallow them alive…My son, don’t travel that avenue (don’t make that choice and get into the car) with them or set foot on their path because (here is the painful consequence) their feet run toward trouble…they set an ambush to kill themselves…’” Prov 2:10-16
If the son is persuaded to join the thugs, makes the choice, gets into their Chevy, and then commits the crime, it is the son who is responsible and suffers the consequences, not the parents. The son had freedom to choose the path of trouble or to refuse. If he chooses the path of trouble, he loses. He is responsible. He does the crime, he does the time. Parents are not blamed. Your son or daughter had freedom to choose their own path. They knew what they were doing.
One brutal irony that readers of Proverbs can easily miss is that the author—Solomon—stopped listening to instruction (didn’t take his own advice in Prov 19:27) and strayed from the road of knowledge (cf., 1 Kings 11:1-13). In other words, the author failed to take his own advice and he suffered the consequence.
So, is Solomon responsible for his failure, or were his parents ultimately responsible? Who’s to blame for his failure? Ironically, Proverbs, the book Solomon wrote, lays the blame at his feet. Dad and mum are not blamed. So, why are you blaming yourself for your children’s mistakes?
Many good parents are confused today and experience guilt for their adult child's behavior. You might be one of them. You did your best and were dedicated to your role as father or mother, but your investment of love and discipline failed to produce the expected results.
You believed Scripture gave you an iron-clad guarantee, a promise that if you provided the necessary balance of love and discipline, happy results would follow. Your children would not disappoint you, embarrass you, or break your heart.
But today you are bitterly disappointed and confused, maybe even disillusioned, feeling that God has let you down and has not kept His side of a bargain that you struck. But Scripture does not contain such a bargain. No such lifetime warranty exists.
God is Not to Blame
God was the perfect parent to Israel. He loved them and disciplined them. If any children ought to have followed the trajectory of faith and love, it should have been Israel. Yet, they rebelled against their Father and chased after idols (Isaiah 1:2-4). Go figure. Deficient parenting was irrefutably not the problem. God was not to blame. Israel had freedom to choose. They choose foolishness.
Acknowledging Our Failures
Parents, of course, are flawed human beings. We all make mistakes, in the best of homes and with the best of intentions. Some mistakes undermine our effectiveness as parents, and some flaws, when acted out, create deep wounds in children.
So all parents should regularly acknowledge their failures to their children in a posture of humility (“I was wrong, it was my fault, I am to blame, I take responsibility for my failure”), without offering excuses or justifications (“I was tired, I couldn’t help it, you did this to me first), express grief for their failures (“I feel terrible when I think about how that hurt you, you did not deserve that”), and then—and only then--humbly ask for forgiveness (“can you find it in your heart to forgive me, please”?).
As parents, we remember many of our mistakes. But sometimes we forget errors we made that our children recall vividly and with pain or anger. So, our conscience urges us to approach them, armed with grace-driven humility and sincerity, to settle any forgotten or overlooked wrongs.
You might say something like, “You are important and valuable to me. As you look back over the years, is there unfinished business between us?” “I want to make sure that I’ve taken responsibility for my failures. Have I humbly acknowledged my failures to you? Do you still suffer hurts and wounds that I am responsible for that I can make right today?”
By asking them these questions, you are giving sons and daughters permission to tell you the truth, even painful truth about your parental failures. They might not take you up on your offer. It might be too painful for them or denial just might be a cocoon they live in. If this is the first time you’ve actually been humble with your children, it might take them off guard. So, don’t force the issue. Don’t control or demand. Pride demands an answer. Humility waits. Humility is patient.
If they do take you up on the offer, make sure your cell phone is 100 miles away, the TV or radio is off, and you have uninterrupted privacy; then, listen attentively and humbly to the full truth. Refuse to interrupt or be defensive or hide behind any excuses. When you feel tempted to interrupt and blurt out, “but you don’t understand” refuse to fall for that trap of pride. Your defensive interruption will convince them that you aren’t sincere or humble or honest. You might as well check your notifications on your cell phone while in the conversation with your child.
When you have been shown your mistakes and errors take the full blame, the full responsibility. Identify with their hurts and sorrows. Sympathize with their plight. Express grief for the wounds you created. Weep with those who weep. Let them know you take responsibility for your failures. Phrases such as, “you didn’t deserve that” or “I am so ashamed of what I did or said” go a long way to demonstrate sincerity. Watch for body language. Invite further truth. Observe. Listen. Care. Love.
Then, when the time is right, humbly ask—not demand--them for forgiveness. They might refuse. It’s their call, not yours. Don’t rush the process.
Let the False Guilt Go
Then, after the conversation, get alone with your spouse (if applicable) and with God. And let yourself off the hook of guilt. Stop beating yourself with the club of false guilt. Stop holding yourself to a standard that even God does not hold Himself to. Let go of the heavy weight of false guilt that your child’s sins sit on your shoulders. They do not. Speak truth to that lie.
Use God’s Words to Pray
Use Paul’s prayer for the Philippians (1: 9-11) as a prayer for your children. In other words, use God’s own words to speak to Him about His children. Pray His words constantly throughout the day. Pray with your spouse. If God wakes you up in the middle of the night, why not use that time to get up and pray rather than to toss and turn, fretting about your children. You’ll sleep better afterwards.
Keep the Bridge Open
Keep the bridge of communication open to your children. Make it easy for them to approach you and speak to you. Give them no reason to discount your faith by the way you treat them or speak to them. They’re adults, so treat them accordingly.
That is to say, respect their right to make their own choices and live their life as they see fit. Hold your tongue. Don't criticize or try to make them feel guilty. Give advice when it is asked for. Look for opportunities to show your love, respect, and acceptance of them.
Express Your Disappointments
Express your disappointments to God. He’ll listen to your complaints about wayward children. God the Father may have heard a few complaints about you from your folks when you were younger. He listened to them just as He’ll listen to you.
Remain Humble and Hopeful
Love seeks after the highest good in the one loved. Your love for them will outlast their mistakes just as Jesus’ love for you has outlasted yours. Jesus remains unflinchingly loyal to your children even when they forsake Him. At best, His own disciples were failures, but He remained committed to their development. Jesus will also remain unflinchingly loyal to you.
Thank you for reading.
 It has become popular in recent times to interpret this verse to mean that a child’s upbringing should be aligned to fit his natural bent, his individuality. This, of course, is wise counsel, but it is an idea that is foreign to Proverbs in terms of the various “ways” cited in the book. A child’s “way” is not his natural personality bent in Proverbs. A child’s “way” in Proverbs is foolishness. Proverbs contains no sympathetic outlook for the heart of children. And it is hard to see why a natural bent even needs dedication or training. A child’s natural bent will inevitably remain his natural bent for life, regardless of training or dedication. But this recent view makes for popular preaching and seemingly easy parenting. But such a view lacks textual credibility, contextual or exegetical foundation, despite the fact that the Amplified Bible in Proverbs 22:6 includes the phrase as one of its options for “his way.” It is wise to remember that the Amplified Bible, for all of its good intentions, is not a translation produced by a team of seasoned Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek scholars, non-sectarian in nature; it was not meant to replace accurate translations of the Scriptures. Some of the language tools of the past generation were produced with excellent motives. But, because they were composed by exegetically weak and linguistically inexperienced Bible students, they suffer from being exegetically unsound and misleading. Another example of an older tool that misleads and misinforms, though without malice or deceptive intentions, is Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. Sadly, the book is packed with misleading expository errors and egregious linguistic mistakes about the meaning of Greek words. The worst example—to use William D. Mounce’s (long-time evangelical NT Greek professor and author) expression--is its definition of repentance as “changing one’s mind” without changing one’s life. This is one of the most egregious errors of the entire book. I know of no Greek professor alive today who recommends the book because it is based upon a false assumption understood as, “the root fallacy,” defining a word based upon the individual pieces that make up the word. For example, a “bulldozer” is not a bull that dozes. It is, rather, a piece of heavy machinery for moving dirt. Yet, the dictionary continues to mislead thousands of unknowing but sincere Bible students who love the Word of God. Ironically, it contains more error than truth, though written by a sincere and devoted follower of Jesus. In fact, many “devotional” Bible commentaries written in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s based their word studies on the errors of Vine’s dictionary. Be careful about the shallow wells you draw water from.
 Used in Israel’s Scripture.
 See my blog, part #2 for an exposition of Proverbs 22:6 and its ironic approach.
 The Hebrew verb חֲנֹ֣ךְ (hnk) has the idea of orientation, dedication, and inauguration, starting someone or something in a particular direction. The conclusion of the verse—“even when he is old”—at the later stages of life, confirms this idea of dedication.
 “Foolishness is tangled up in the heart of a child, but the rod of correction will drive him far from it.” Proverbs 22:15; 29:15; 9:18
 The phrases “young man” or “son” are probably generic and refer to “young women” and “daughters” as well. This is not the place to explain why. But mothers are on equal footing with fathers for teaching children in Proverbs (Prov 1:8; 31:26). In order for the mother to be a teacher of Israel’s inherited wisdom, she herself had to be taught. This suggests that the word “son” is inclusive, also denoting “daughters.”
 Not all thugs use Chevys. Some use Pontiacs, Buicks, and Cadillacs. The wise son chooses products from Ford Motor Company or Lincoln-Mercury. Or, didn’t you know? Ford has a better idea.
 Some of those parenting flaws are legalistic and rule-dominated households, controlling, displays of sinful anger, verbal and physical abuse rooted in anger, conflict between spouses, self-centered fathers and mothers, neglect, materialism, using double-standards, hypocritical lives, unrealistic expectations, spoiling, failure to discipline in love, constant overreaction, parental refusal to acknowledge their own failures and ask children for forgiveness, inconsistent standards, maintaining racist attitudes, and the failure to listen to and understand children.
 The use of social media such as cell phones to interrupt a group conversation or a one-on-one conversation or in corporate worship or in a class (high school, college, graduate school, business, church, or any other type of class) is an example of self-centeredness, disrespect for neighbor, and usually signals insecurity. It is the failure of love of neighbor and the triumph of love of self.
 There are many other prayers written by Paul the apostle that can be used when we pray for people, including our families. See for example Ephesians 1:15-23; Colossians 1:9ff. Paul’s prayers are inspired and communicate to us what is of utmost importance to God. God loves to hear His word spoken back to Him. It is a mystery to me why Paul’s prayers are ignored. Why not go further and memorize them all; then you can use them to pray for the people you love and care about. Such discipline will pay off, especially when the well of our prayers runs dry. Paul’s prayers, when memorized, can prime the pump.
 Psalm 42 and 43—meant to be read and studied in combo--are written for depressed men and women and offer hope for the hopeless. Psalm 73, another Psalm that acts as a front porch to one of the Psalter’s five sections, is the staircase-studded story of why one believer wanted to divorce God. The first half is down, down, and down, further and further away from God. But he reaches a decisive turning point and the steps begin to ascend back up, up, and up. His faith in God returns. This descent into near divorce from God and ascent back to faith can be the pattern that many children follow.
 Examine Luke’s use of prayer in Luke-Acts. Observe how “doors” (jail doors, hearts, wombs, heaven, sky, roofs, etc.) that are otherwise locked and secure, open up in response to prayer. Prayer opens up locked doors, including the locked door of the human heart. Carefully observe the entirety of Luke’s two-volume work. He’ll encourage you to pray with confidence and perseverance. “Knock and it shall be opened up to you.” Luke 11:1-13