“Consecrating our Children”
Train up a child in the way he should go;
even when he is old he will not depart from it.
The Bible is full of wonderful instruction on family relationships, marriage and the rearing of children. Among the many verses that address parenting, Proverbs 22:6 is a classic. It teaches the general truth that if parents train their children to love and obey God when they are young they will grow up to love and obey God as adults. When this verse is read aloud to the church, however, it breaks my heart to see the pain on parents’ faces whose children have grown up only to leave the Lord. They blame themselves for not training their children "in the way [they] should go. Or worse, they blame God for not keeping his promise. But is this fair? Let's examine this passage in more detail to find out.
WHAT IS A "PROVERB"?
It is important to note what a proverb is. The word “proverb” comes from a root which means “likeness.” The related verb means “to be like, to represent, be comparable with.” For example, “Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish” (Psa. 49:12). The word "like" is the same word for "proverb." A proverb is an object lesson based on a comparison or an analogy (Psa. 78:2-6), a short, pithy statement (Ezek. 16:44) or a general saying (Deut. 28:37). In the Bible, proverbs are memorable sayings that, if heeded, generally turn out true in life.
So let’s revisit Proverbs 22:6. God is not making a hard-and-fast promise like “If you do A, the result will always be B.” Proverbs doesn't function as computer code for life. God’s wisdom in the book of Proverbs is given in short statements that capture a general truth about wise and godly living in poetic form. It is beyond the scope of any one proverb to exhaust the subject it addresses. You might say a proverb is the rule and not the exception (for the exceptions, see Ecclesiastes). So as a rule, if parents follow the wisdom of Proverbs 22:6a, then verse 6b will probably result. While a person's disobedience to the Lord may be attributed in part by a failing in the parents, it is not always necessarily the case.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO "TRAIN UP" A CHILD?
Wisdom teaches us to “train up” our children. This conjures images, at least in my mind, of training an animal to do tricks. This gives the impression that parenting isn’t too different than potty training a beagle. But this is missing it by a long shot. The verb translated “train up” can also mean “to dedicate” or “to consecrate.” The same word used in reference to children in Proverbs 22:6 is used to refer to dedicating a house (Deut. 20:5), the temple (1 Kgs. 8:63; Psa. 30:1), altars (Num. 7:10; 2 Chron. 7:9) and the town walls (Neh. 12:27). A related adjective describes men who have been trained, tried and experienced (Gen. 14:14).
So how does this all fit in with parenting our children? The proverb pictures a child whose parents dedicate him to the Lord. This certainly involves moral training and guidance but underneath it is a deeper desire to consecrate this precious gift of human life to the Creator’s service. This reminds me of Hannah’s attitude in 1 Sam. 1:11, “And she vowed a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life...”
Hannah had the right mental picture of parenthood. Her inability to bear children like other women left her in humility and disgrace in society but it also gave her a deeper appreciation for children and a higher perspective on parenting. To Hannah, the life of a child was a gift from God meant to be given back to him in faithful service.
IN WHAT "WAY" ARE CHILDREN TO BE TRAINED?
The “way” talked about in the proverb is a path, a road, a metaphor for the journey of life. We train our children by starting them on a path headed in a certain direction at a young age. Even though the proverb indicates there is a correct "way" children "should go," the proverb remains true no matter how you train your child. Generally, when we are set on a path as a child, whether that pathway is righteous (Prov. 13:6) or wicked (Prov. 12:26), we will seldom deviate from that path later in life.
This proverb is a warning about the character forming habits parents instill in their children at an early age. They are “soaking up” how to live life based on what they see in mom and dad. Parents are setting their children on a trajectory, a heading, whether they know it or not. The Lord says through Ezekiel, “like mother, like daughter” (Ezek. 16:44) just as we say, "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree." As we stated before, there are exceptions to the rule, so don't be discouraged if you are ashamed of the tree you fell from!
Now, the “way he should go” is stated elsewhere in the book. There is a “way that seems right” to a person (Prov. 14:12) which, to the child, is often the way of “foolishness” (Prov. 22:15). It is the godly parent’s duty to dedicate their children to the Lord at the earliest moments of parenthood. Like Hannah, we should have a mind to consecrate our children to the Lord even before they are born and to see in every moment with our children an opportunity to shape their character. Continuing that act of consecration requires loving parental “discipline” along the “way” (Prov. 22:15; cf. Col. 3:21; Eph. 6:4). The NEB translates Proverbs 22:6a as, “Start a boy on the right road.” Sound wisdom and a dire warning all wrapped up in one statement. A true proverb!