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.
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.