Train Up a Child in the Way He Should Go

I have six kids, ages seven to seventeen, and I believe that few callings are as high as shaping them to see and savor the beauties of Christ and to love the nations as he does.

In my years of pastoral ministry and parenting, I have regularly encountered confusion regarding the meaning of a well-known verse, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). Let me offer some reflections on it, considering its lasting significance for the church.

How Do We “Dedicate” a Child?

First, note that the Hebrew verb translated “train” occurs three other times in the Bible. In each of these, it refers to “dedicating” houses, whether of a man (Deuteronomy 20:5) or of God (1 Kings 8:63; 2 Chronicles 7:5).

This suggests that the initial imperative calls for parents to actively devote or commit their youth to a certain, perhaps even religious, course of action — continually pleading in the presence of God and others, “May what happens in the life of this young one ever magnify the greatness, worth, sufficiency, and saving power of our God.” “Train up” may, therefore, be too weak of a translation and miss the potential element of consecration to religious and moral direction (Waltke, 204).

“Every youth’s future is filled with possibility. Parents have an opportunity to direct a child’s path toward God.”

Certainly “dedicating” a child would include the common ceremony of commitment that many parents engage in at the birth of their children. However, the overall context of Proverbs suggests the act of dedicating in Proverbs 22:6 is focused more on an intentional, sustained, God-dependent shepherding of our children’s hearts as they grow into adulthood — one in which the children themselves are aware of the parents’ trajectory-setting intentions. This is not a passive calling for dads and moms.

Second, the ESV’s “in the way he should go” is a very idiomatic way of capturing the Hebrew “according to the dictates of his way.” So the command line of the proverb literally reads, “Dedicate a youth according to the dictates of his way,” or perhaps more commonly, “Dedicate a child according to what his way demands.”

The Way of the Child

So what does “according to the dictates of his way” most likely mean in Proverbs 22:6? Significantly, in wisdom literature like Proverbs, we find only two “ways” — the way of wisdom and life, and the way of folly and death.

  • The previous verse declares, “Thorns and snares are in the way of the crooked; whoever guards his soul will keep far from them” (Proverbs 22:5).
  • Similarly, Proverbs 11:5 says, “The righteousness of the blameless keeps his way straight, but the wicked falls by his own wickedness.”
  • Consider also Proverbs 14:2, which reads, “Whoever walks in uprightness fears the Lord, but he who is devious in his ways despises him.”
  • And again, Proverbs 16:17 says, “The highway of the upright turns aside from evil; whoever guards his way preserves his life.”

Within Proverbs, the moral content of one’s way depends on the doer — whether God (Proverbs 8:22), the wise (Proverbs 11:5; 14:8; 16:7), humans in general (Proverbs 16:9; 20:24), or fools (Proverbs 19:3; Waltke, 205). Significantly, a “youth’s way” is often negative.

First, when left to themselves, the “young” lack judgment and have hearts filled with foolishness. “I have seen among the simple, I have perceived among the youths, a young man lacking sense” (Proverbs 7:7). “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him” (Proverbs 22:15).

Second, without discipline, the young bring disgrace on their parents. “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother” (Proverbs 29:15). Out of this context, Proverbs regularly exhorts parents to discipline their children and to instruct them in wisdom. “Discipline your son, for there is hope; do not set your heart on putting him to death” (Proverbs 19:18; cf. 1:1, 4; 29:15).

In Proverbs, the “way” of a child seems more negative than positive; it is the way without wisdom.

Cultivating and Shaping Potential

These texts could lead one to read Proverbs 22:6 as a sarcastic or ironic command that warns parents of the result of not establishing standards and boundaries for their children. A similar ironic command comes in Proverbs 19:27, which also begins with an imperative: “Cease to hear instruction, my son, and you will stray from the words of knowledge.”

If you read Proverbs 22:6 in a similar way, the principle would be, “Let a boy do what he wants, and he will become a self-willed adult incapable of change! Raise him in accordance with his wayward heart, and he will stay wayward” (Clifford, 197). I once read the proverb in this manner.

I now question this approach, however, for three reasons. First, the sarcastic reading requires a more passive approach to parenting that does not account for the verb “train up” (“dedicate”), which expresses conscious intention.

Certainly we as parents are always training our kids, even through our passivity. For example, by failing to lead them to repentance before the sovereign God, we teach them that they are fine to continue living as self-made kings and queens, rather than servants. By failing to instruct them in God’s commandments, we teach them that God’s word is not the highest authority in our lives. By failing to set boundaries, we instruct them that we really do not care whether they do good or ill.

Nevertheless, this type of passive training is not what seems expressed in the imperative “Dedicate!” Rather, the sage here calls parents to intentionally commit or orient the moral and religious trajectories of our youth.

Second, while the youth’s way is naturally negative when left to himself, Proverbs 22:6 pictures not a self-willed individual but one who is benefiting from the intentional discipline and instruction of his parents (“Dedicate!”). With this, the idiomatic “according to the dictates of his way” seems most naturally to express the way that ought to be. That is, every youth’s future is filled with possibility, and we as parents must recognize this and direct our child’s paths toward godliness. This verse is about trajectories and potential, which suggests that the ESV’s “the way he should go,” while missing specificity, still dynamically catches the point of the text.

Third, the consequence of heeding the command to “dedicate” our youth is that “even when he grows old, he will not turn from it.” In Proverbs, “the wise, not fools, are crowned with the gray hair of age (Proverbs 20:29),” so the proverb seems to anticipate a trajectory toward wisdom, not foolishness (Waltke, 205).

A Proverb for Parents and Children

The consequence statement in Proverbs 22:6 implies that the parents’ intentional moral and religious shaping early on will have a permanent effect on their child for good. This statement is not a hard-and-fast promise to parents, however, for the rest of the book makes clear that the power of the youth’s future depends not only on the parents’ guidance but also very much on the choices he or she makes. The immediately preceding verse implies that the youth must guard his soul from those who are crooked (Proverbs 22:5). He could choose to follow the wicked unto death (Proverbs 2:12–19), or he could heed the wisdom of his parents and choose the good paths of the righteous unto life (Proverbs 22:1–11, 20).

While Proverbs 22:6 is framed as instruction to parents, the book as a whole gives guidance to the young (Proverbs 1:4), which suggests the proverb actually intends to call straying youth back toward the right way. If you are a son or daughter who had parents that worked hard to set positive moral and religious trajectories for your life (though imperfectly), you must not counter this trajectory by foolish decisions today.

Proverbs 22:6 sets out a principle that time will prove true unless God intervenes for good or ill. As a parent, I rejoice in the directions given me in God’s word — the Lord calls me and my wife to actively and intentionally dedicate our six kids to represent, reflect, and resemble the glory of God in the face of Christ.

Yet Proverbs 22:6 also reminds me how much I and my children fail, so I also rejoice in the power of the gospel to curb my own faults and the hardest of my children’s hearts. God in Christ makes those dead in sin alive (Ephesians 2:4–5), forgives all who confess (1 John 1:9), and overcomes the old creation with new (2 Corinthians 5:17).