How to Train Up a Child

Three Subtle Parenting Shifts

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Staff Development, Campus Outreach

With five children between the ages of 19 and 8, my wife, Julia, and I are nearly two decades into our journey as parents. When you add two dogs, two cats, and an “Alexa” to the mix, the kitchen often feels like feeding time at a zoo, in the middle of a nightclub. Yet beneath the busy and often chaotic place we call home, Julia and I have experienced and developed a current of underlying peace.

Years ago, we came to acknowledge that while it’s right and wise to do what we can to position our children for future faithfulness, who they become isn’t ultimately in our control. We’re responsible for the home environment they grow up in, not who they turn out to be as grown-ups. We’ve found great peace as parents by focusing on the current callings God has given us rather than trying to grasp unguaranteed outcomes.

Though it’s been nearly fifteen years, I can distinctly remember how this perspective shift altered the way we talked about our home life. Our conversations quickly moved away from what our children were not doing (which is what we used to focus on) toward the many things that we, as the parents, could be doing. It may sound silly, but our parenting discussions finally began to be centered more on the parents!

In addition to changing our conversations, this new outlook resulted in significant shifts in the way we parented. After doing an honest evaluation of our home environment, we clearly saw we had work to do. We gathered scriptures that spoke to either parenting or family, and then we landed on Proverbs 22:6 as our starting point:

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.

Three Subtle, Significant Shifts

While the verse was familiar to us, the reality was more foreign. In fact, if the verse were translated like we parented, it would have said, “Tell up a child in the way he shouldn’t go, and tomorrow he will obey.” If that sounds familiar to you, I have good news: there’s a better way. The internal peace we experience now has been directly connected to the following three shifts in our parenting:

  • train up, not tell up
  • should go, not shouldn’t go
  • old, not young

It’s worth mentioning that while there’s some ambiguity in the original Hebrew, these three shifts aren’t limited to this text. Parents should feel free to embrace the call to train up our children in the way they should go, with a long-term view, because these are established biblical themes that each have wide support beyond this passage. We happen to love Proverbs 22:6 (at least as it’s worded in the ESV) because it beautifully and concisely captures these three wise shifts.

Train, Not Tell

Our first parenting shift was to embrace our role as trainers, not merely tellers. Our tell-up mindset was clearly seen in common refrains like, “How many times have I told you . . .” or “Don’t make me have to tell you again.”

“Our first parenting shift was to embrace our role as trainers, not merely tellers.”

For the record, it’s true that we had told them the same things repeatedly. What changed was the way we responded in these moments. As tellers, we used to get irritated at their lack of listening, but as trainers, we learned to push through and seek creative ways to stimulate their minds and hearts. We found that most (not all, but definitely most) of what we were quick to label as disobedience or indifference was greatly affected by a little more effort from the instructors.

As Christian parents, while a training mindset may feel new, the model has been firmly established through the life and ministry of Jesus. Consider, for instance, how Jesus taught his disciples to pray. He didn’t merely tell them, “Go pray,” and then repeatedly demean them when they didn’t. Rather, the master trainer modeled a life of prayer (Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16), taught them why we pray (Matthew 7:7–11; Mark 9:29), showed them how to pray (Luke 11:2–4), and then sought to keep them going (Luke 18:1). Imagine the impact in our homes if we were to replace our culture of telling with a culture marked by that kind of training.

As a result of this one shift, we went from mainly reacting to far more often initiating toward our kids. More than that, we committed to not discipline our children for things we hadn’t trained them in yet. Admittedly, this commitment resulted in some awkward moments in public, when we observed a kid’s behavior and looked at each other with enlarged eyes, as if to say, “How have we never taught them about this at home!” As we shifted the focus toward training, though, the underlying message to our children was clear: we are with you and for you in your journey to maturity.

Should Go, Not Shouldn’t Go

It’s not a surprise that one of the first words a toddler learns to say is no. Sadly, many homes are dominated with parents repeatedly telling children what not to do. On multiple occasions, I’ve sat with fathers of adult children who tearfully lament their children’s decisions, saying, “I don’t get it; they were raised knowing what not to do.” Unfortunately, according to the apostle Paul, merely arming our children with an impressive collection of do not’s will not prepare them well for what lies ahead (Colossians 2:21–23).

The vision to train in the way they should go is more than semantics. It’s a way of parenting that reflects the very heart of our heavenly Father, a heart that can be traced back to the garden of Eden. Contrary to popular memory, God’s first words were not, “Do not eat from that tree.” Before God gave that vital no, he first gave a far bigger yes: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden” (Genesis 2:16). Our heavenly Father makes clear the way we should go so that when he does say no (which he does), we can be confident it’s to preserve us for life, not prevent us from life.

The subtle shift to intentionally focus on a positive vision led us to identify a big family YES: “The Bradner Family Creed.” Our creed (shared below) highlighted seven values we were committed to pursuing as a family. With these established and communicated, we embraced our role as the lead trainers who were constantly on the lookout for ways to model, teach, and celebrate the family living out our creed. Sixteen years later, we can confirm that it’s much more enjoyable to give your energy and effort toward a family yes than it is to be constantly telling kids no.

Old, Not Young

The final shift was found in the last part of verse 6: “when he is old he will not depart from it.” Imagining our children as adults has helped us play the long game in our parenting. It guards against unknowingly winning today’s battle at the expense of losing the war. We desire to parent now in such a way that our children want to engage with us when they no longer have to.

“We desire to parent in such a way that our children want to engage with us when they no longer have to.”

The long game may last for decades, but it begins now while our children are young. We didn’t want to wait until they left the house to create an environment they would want to return to. This desire shaped how we spoke to them — especially what we wanted them to hear most and least. If our kids were to hear us say the words, “How many times have I told you . . .” our hope is that it would be followed with something like, “. . . how much I love you and consider it a privilege to be your parent?” These are the kinds of words we want them to hear most.

Some might read this and conclude that we’ve adopted some parent-as-buddy relationship. No, we haven’t lost sight of our authority and responsibility to correct and exhort. We’re intentionally aiming to position ourselves for a lifetime of that kind of ministry. Henry Drummond captures the long-game perspective so well: “You will find that the people who influence you are the people who believe in you.”

The long game also shaped what we desire them to hear least. While the quick response “That’s not what we believe/think/do in this family” may save a few minutes in the moment, it robs parenting in the long run. Children who are always merely told how to think and what to believe — without thoughtful conversation — will eventually stop engaging those topics. While the Christian parent has the privilege of teaching what is right, that doesn’t mean we should do it like the fool, who “takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Proverbs 18:2).

“I’d love to hear more about why you think that” may take more time in the moment, but it will also bear much greater fruit in the years ahead. I’m certain that our adult children value our thoughts and perspective more today because they grew up in a home that valued theirs.

Our Best Investments

Looking back, it’s nearly impossible to quantify the impact of these three parenting shifts, but it’s been enormous. Parenting is hard, and so is being a child. Instead of shouldering anxiety today about who our children become as grown-ups, let’s give our best energy to creating a God-honoring and life-giving environment for them now. Sometimes the most transformative, enduring outcomes are a result of a few subtle shifts in perspective.

Bradner Family Creed (Est. 2006)
We honor God.
Every person matters.
We are so thankful.
We don’t speak “whinese.”
Can I help you with that?
We give our best.
We celebrate!

(@MattBradner) is a husband, father of five, and staff member with Campus Outreach. Matt serves on the East Coast development team and primarily focuses on the spiritual and relational health of the staff.