Introduction

As a parent of four, my journey of fatherhood has been one of love, joy, and sometimes, deep concern and guilt. This is particularly true when it comes to the spiritual path of my child. The adage from Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it,” has long been a north star in my parenting journey. I’m sure it has been for you as well. However, life often presents complex storms that are not so easy to weather with simple sayings.

One of the most heart-wrenching experiences is watching a child, whom you’ve lovingly nurtured in faith, choose a path that veers or departs from yours. I saw it in the look on my mother’s face as I chose to run with the world for a time rather than follow her instructions. This departure can leave a parent grappling with a myriad of emotions – from guilt and disappointment to a profound sense of failure and loss. The questions start to mount. Where did I go wrong? Did I not embody the teachings strongly enough? Or perhaps, my approach was too forceful and strained?

Give me a minute as I aim to delve into the heart of this proverb. It is my hope to offer solace and insights not only to myself but to other parents facing similar situations. We will explore the depth of Proverbs 22:6 by bringing to the surface three often missed realities that are difficult to see without a bit of hermeneutical (interpretive) elbow grease

1. ‘Derek’: For Each Child There is a ‘Way’

At the heart of the proverb “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” lies the Hebrew word ‘derek.’ This term signifies more than a direction; it reflects the inherent nature or method of something. It can be used of a creature’s habitual way of being. Think of the “way” a sidewinder snake moves on the desert floor or the way a horse learns to walk. It suggests that children have a unique ‘derek’ – a distinct approach to life that parents should recognize and nurture.

The true essence of ‘derek’ shifts the focus from a generic approach to embracing the individualistic path of each child. Recognizing that every child interacts with their environment uniquely is essential. Some might connect through emotion, others through intellect or experience. This understanding is crucial in guiding them towards a life of faith and values. While the destination is going to be the same for every child, the roadmap will be completely different.

2. The Meaning of Maturity: ‘When He is Old’ Not ‘When He is Young’

The phrase “and when he is old he will not depart from it” underscores a nuanced understanding. Notice what the proverb does not say. It does not say, “Train up a child in the way he should go and he will not depart from it.” It says, “When he is old, he will not depart from it.” This suggests that while children may explore various paths during their journey, the foundational teachings imparted in childhood will resurface in their maturity.

Another way of saying the same thing is to say, “Train up a child in the way they should go and when they are older, they will come back to it.” Of course, they may never depart, even for a time. But the wisdom of the statement is in the understanding that maturity will bring them to a realization of the wisdom of the way you taught. This provides comfort to parents witnessing their children exploring divergent paths. But parents must live with the realization that they may not be in their lifetime. It is not, “When you are old, they will not depart from it.” It’s their maturity that is in focus. I may be belaboring something I have long gotten across. Suffice it to say, you may have long passed by the time your children have their epiphany and come back to God.

3. A Proverb is a Proverb, Not a Promise

The book of Proverbs is not a collection of promises but rather wise sayings. That is what a proverb is: a general truth that does not necessarily apply in every situation. Just because a proverb is in the Bible does not sanctify it, and change its meaning. It does not magically transform into a promise. If it’s in the Scriptures, it is an inspired proverb.

This proverb, therefore, is not a guarantee but a general principle about the lasting impact of early childhood education and moral guidance. [Source] It highlights the importance of a balanced approach in parenting – providing a moral and ethical framework while acknowledging and nurturing each child’s unique personality and talents.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Proverbs 22:6 invites us to a more empathetic and individualized approach to child-rearing. Recognizing each child’s unique ‘derek’ and guiding them accordingly, with the understanding that the values instilled in them will influence their adult lives, offers timeless guidance for parents navigating the complex journey of raising children.

Next Post in this Series: 5 Radical (More) Ways to Make Sure Your Children Don’t Depart from the Faith,


C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Find him everywhere: Find him everywhere

    10 replies to "The Real Meaning of Proverbs 22:6 – How to Train Up a Child in the Way He Should Go"

    • Don

      Putting this interpretation back into the format of the verse, if one harmonizes their parental teaching to a child’s particular way of interacting with his environment, that child will come back to his particular way of interacting with his environment when he is old??
      Frankly, out of parental angst, this seems to meld both the naturalistic and negative interpretations of this verse to allow for a very lengthy “prodigal child” adult period, with a reversion to a moral path occurring well after parents have deceased. In the process, this interpretation seems to maintain the proverb as essentially a promise, albeit with a much delayed fulfillment.
      Addressing some of these issues and seemingly more grounded in scripture is the treatment found in: Fox, Michael V. Proverbs 10–31: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 18B. Anchor Yale Bible. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2009.

    • Bibliophile

      I think you may be reading a Western cultural bias into your interpretation of these texts…
      For example, in the previous, related blog post about preventing children from leaving the faith, you emphasised individualism and independence; but these are Enlightenment ideals, with which the West has become infatuated: Hebrew culture was more communitarian, and raising a child would have been the responsibility not of the parents only, but also of the larger society, including the religious authorities. The idea that we can just go off and “think for ourselves” as individuals isolated from the rest of society has pretty much been debunked recently – a lot of what we think is just cultural conditioning. But, since the Enlightenment and protestantism are such good bedfellows, I can understand why an evangelical would encourage this kind of approach…
      In Africa there are customs and traditions that involve the entire community and a lot of knowledge mediated through these means; hence, thinking tends to be more communal than individual – and you don’t find Africans easily departing from their way of doing things. So, I wouldn’t be too quick to advise someone to just “think for yourself”; that’s a lot harder to achieve than it sounds. We need to look at the big picture here.

      • C Michael Patton

        Thanks my friend. Given your suggested paradigm shift, how does that apply to this passage? In other words, rather than just saying my assumptions are wrong, I would love to see what the proper way is to interpret this.

        • Bibliophile

          I would recommend reading some (relatively) new material that looks into the relationship between theology and culture: Paradigm Shifts in Missiology, by David J. Bosch; Prolegomena to Theology, by Richard Lindts; and Beyond Foundationalism, by Stanley J. Grenz. Maybe some George Lindbeck too. There’s also another work, The Comical Doctrine; but I forget the name of the lady who authored it… These are all protestant authors. But I’ll also include a very important Catholic publication from the university of St. Mary, From Christendom to Apostolic Mission. I highly recommend this one.
          Although these works don’t necessarily focus on interpretations of specific texts, they deal with the transition from modern to post-modern culture and inquire into what is the right theological framework for our own time, now that we have witnessed the death and burial of foundationalism – which is the basis of your own systematic theology, a la Charles Hodge. A few, like Alvin Plantiga, Nocholas Wolterstoff, and other so-called Reformed epistemologists, are trying to resurrect (what is referred to as a “chastened”) foundationalism in response to post-modernism; but they are flogging a dead horse.

          In my opinion, if you don’t first of all deal with the wider culture in which we find ourselves right now, there’s no point asking “what’s the right interpretation?”; because that interpretation will emerge from what may be an obsolete theological paradigm that isn’t relevant to the present cultural moment.

          Or you could just consult your local parish clerics and see whether the Magisterium has anything to say about it… But, of course, you won’t do that 😜

        • C Michael Patton

          Haha. I don’t think I would be going there. However, I am interest in exactly what I got wrong.

          Btw, had to read all the anti- or beyond foundationalism back in seminary. I am well aware of those concepts. I just don’t know what it has to do with this particular post. Maybe you should go to the parish, read it to your local magisterial authority and see what they say I got wrong. No use mean listening to you, the laity. 😜

          Seriously though, exactly. What did I get wrong? if you can’t tell me, me thinks you don’t know. Me thanks you’re just having fun, causing trouble, pushing a postmodern agenda! Also, I think you have a lot of assumptions about me that are not true.

        • C Michael Patton

          Btw. I loved Grenz. He was a good man and was taken too early. I was not where he was, but his criticism was needed.

        • C Michael Patton

          Also, me thinks I need to get to bed. I am 2 wired. I wrote two more blogs you may like. They shall be unveiled soon. Patience.

    • Bibliophile

      If you’re asking me what is my own interpretation – as opposed to what I might like to think is the “real meaning” – of the text; then I would say it refers to the fact that good habits are best formed early; and that as parents we are responsible for the spiritual, moral and intellectual formation of our children, as prescribed by the teaching authority of the Church. Make sure they get good catechesis, in other words.

    • Bibliophile

      Well done on completion of the new blogs. Looking forward!
      Rest well, brother:)

    • Bibliophile

      One of those assumptions I have about you (I’m open to correction here, obviously) is that somewhere along the line in your theological formation you got caught on the horns of the rationalist (conservative inerrantist)/empiricist (liberal experientialist) dilemma (both are foundationalist anyway; and so is every permutation along that spectrum), and decided to become a sceptic, because that was the only option left open for you, since you reject a Magisterium with the authority to teach infallibly on faith and morals.

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