“Put your shoes on,” I instructed my 2-year-old, as I watched her rip off her shoes and toss them on the ground. I had taken my two youngest children to the playground to play while their sister was at her dance class, and my toddler had decided upon arrival that she didn’t need her shoes. In my haste to get the kids out the door, I had not put socks on her, and she expressed her distaste at having to run around in shoes with no socks.
However sweaty her feet might have been, I wanted her to keep her shoes on because I did not want her to step on a rock or stub a toe or get her feet dirty. Therefore, I patiently put her in my lap, velcroed her shoes on, and sent her down the slide another time. However, just a few moments later, she took her shoes off and again ran away from with me a laugh. I repeated my instruction to her and put her shoes on for the third time.
After I had placed her shoes on her feet yet again, she scampered off and played for a few moments, and I talked to another mom at the playground. Not even two minutes later, I noticed her shoes discarded once more by the fence and my daughter running around barefoot. As I was in the middle of a conversation and I didn’t feel like battling with my daughter at the moment, I chose not to address her disobedience. My toddler ran around in her bare feet, delighted that she had been able to get her own way.
Later, I reflected on the fact that I should have held the line with her on her shoes. Would it have been a big deal for her to run around barefoot outside? Probably not. However, what was a big deal is that I had asked to keep them on and she had deliberately defied me. If I was going to make a request of her, I needed to follow up if she disobeyed me and ensure that she listen to my instructions.
Training Our Children
Throughout the day, we will frequently have moments, such as the one I described with my youngest daughter, where we need to enforce a boundary, address a habit or pattern of behavior, and instruct our child in a particular situation about the correct way to behave. However, we may not immediately engage in discipline of our child because we may be distracted by other tasks, overwhelmed by the behavior to the point that we have no idea how to address it, afraid of the reaction we might receive from the child, or indifferent to the child’s bad behavior. However, the Bible tells us that we need to view such moments as teachable opportunities and use those to train and mold our child.
Proverbs 22:6 (ESV) says: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” The word “train” here means in the Hebrew not only “to train,” but also “to dedicate.” Essentially, what it means to effectively parent our children is to dedicate or consecrate a child to God and teach a child to know God and walk in His ways.
In addition, as the Pulpit Commentary explains, “train” in Hebrew also means to “put something into the mouth,” “to give to be tasted.” In other words, the type of training or “dedicating” the passage speaks of is to introduce or initiate the child to a particular way of living in regards to Christian values. By introducing them to this “taste,” just as a child grows accustomed to a particular food and desires that food because it is familiar to them, he will also grow accustomed to the ways of God if he is shown this way when he is young.
We should also observe that the proverb says we are to train up a child “in the way he should go.” The actual wording in Hebrew is “in his way.” As theologian Albert Barnes notes, this is “according to the tenor of his way, i. e., the path especially belonging to, especially fitted for, the individual’s character.” Therefore, while this certainly means the way that he should go in terms of Christian values, this isn’t a way that is rigidly determined without carefully studying and getting to know the child. This means that we are to take into account the unique temperament and gifts of the child and also consider this child’s future possibilities, directing a child in the best way for him to go after observing these qualities in the child and continually praying about how to best direct him.
What Happens When We Don’t Train Our Children?
Such training of our children, as the proverb speaks of, seems obvious enough: youths need training and parents should provide it. However, as our society seeks to erase God and Christian values, we see an increasing contempt for authority and boundaries, including parental authority within the home.
Instead of receiving training from their parents, children in many homes today are encouraged to do as they please and follow their own whims and fancies. However, the passage is clear that young people need to be shown the correct way — and the idea is implied that without this instruction, they will go down the wrong path.
Elsewhere in Proverbs, we see this same idea of the dangers of not instructing our children. Proverbs 29:15 tells us, “A rod and reprimand impart wisdom, but a child left undisciplined disgraces its mother.” Some translations read that a child “left to himself” or “left alone” disgraces his mother. The NAS says “a child who gets his own way” is one that “brings shame” or disgraces his mother. What stands out to me in each of these translations is that a child who brings disgrace to his mother is one who is simply left to do what he wants and go his own way.
Similarly, Proverbs 19:18 says, “Discipline your children, for in that there is hope; do not be a willing party to their death.” The NLT translation says that a lack of discipline of our children with “ruin their lives,” or, as the GNT says, “[help] them destroy themselves.”
The wording is incredibly strong here and essentially tells us that we are signing a “death sentence” for our children when we don’t discipline them. Children that are not taught the ways of God will ruin their own lives with their choices — and they may not even discover their own error until it is too late. Or, even if they are able to turn to the right way as adults, they may have the consequences of years of bad choices that they have to still live with that could have been avoided. Likewise, Proverbs 13:24, says, “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.”
While our society increasingly advocates that young people simply go the way that they want to in appearance, attitude, sexuality, gender — you name it, the Word of God is clear on the point that young people should not be left to govern themselves, but rather, be brought up in the instruction and training of the Lord.
Training Has Benefits for Not Only Children, But Parents
When we give our children a “taste” of the right path early on, this training not only has benefits in keeping our children from going down the wrong path and harming themselves, the proverb tells us that this training also has benefits for us as parents: when he is old, he will not “depart from it.” Similarly, Proverbs 29:17 says, “Discipline your children, and they will give you peace; they will bring you the delights you desire.”
When we take the time to discipline our children, we don’t have to worry about our kids growing up and getting into trouble as adults or making us look bad or turning away from the right path because they are still walking in the training they learned in their youth. In contrast to the “disgrace” that will fall on us if we leave our children to train themselves, parents of disciplined children will be able to enjoy the fruits of their hard work when their children are older.
However, the discipline described is not a harsh discipline where parents go on a power trip or misuse parental authority (Ephesians 6:4). We do so in a loving way with an end goal of instilling in them the right habits and qualities. In addition, the proverb does not guarantee that training of a child will produce a child who sticks to the right way. Children will grow up and have to make their own choices as to how they live, and some will turn away from what is right. However, a child who does turn from the right way will find it hard to do so, as they have been introduced to what is right.
When I was doing some study on Proverbs 22:6 to write this article, I ran across a statement that stopped me in my tracks: If we don’t teach our kids, someone else will. If we aren’t taking the time to teach our children intentionally about the ways of God and how to live life, they will learn how to live from TV shows, from neighbors, from teachers — and the habits and values they pick up may not necessarily be Christian values. In fact, they probably won’t. Note what the Sermon Commentary says on this point:
Children are not only capable of training, but they will be trained in spite of us. And if we do not take them in hand, and with a very definite end in view, which we pursue with inflexible purpose and unflagging constancy — an end not lower than heaven, not narrower than eternity, and not meaner than their salvation — another process will assuredly be going on which ere long fills us with dismay. We must know that children are always at school, even when they seem to be away from it.
As a teacher, I got to observe first-hand the impact of young people left to train themselves or simply learn from others around them. The link between poor home lives and poor performance at school was undeniable. Generally speaking, my most out-of-control students had little parental involvement, chaos in their homes — and no one who was looking out for their well-being and/or guiding them.
Of course, I had cases of young people from good homes that got into trouble as well, but the difference between how these cases were handled and how the cases of the students with poor home lives were handled was quite different. If a young person was from a stable home environment, I would usually be able to get in touch with the parent and receive a reply right away. Although each case was unique, generally speaking, the parent would express concern, implement strategies within the home to remedy the problem, and work with me to correct the problem.
On the flip side, if a parent was from a home with uninvolved parents, I would oftentimes have difficulty reaching the parent. The parent would appear unconcerned or too busy to deal with the problem. If the parent was concerned, often no follow-up action would happen to correct the behavior and the behavior would continue. In some cases, the parent would get angry that I had bothered him or express displeasure with me or the school for interrupting his day — as if the school was somehow the problem!
The Word of God does not lie. It has been given to us for our instruction (1 Timothy 3:16; Proverbs 1:1-5). As parents, we can be wise and take the opportunities now to mold and train our children, or we can take the route of least resistance and not correct our children — but the Word of God warns how this route will turn out. Although it might be initially easier and less painful not to engage in the hard work of training and guiding our children, such a path will lead to pain and heartache for us later down the road.
We won’t be perfect parents. If we haven’t done what we should on our parenting journey, we can turn around and start now. In addition, God doesn’t leave us to parent our children alone. He is with us every step of the way to help, strengthen, and encourage us — when we get tired and worn out and feel like we can’t go another step (Psalm 18:32; Psalm 27:14; Isaiah 40:29-31).
However, the proverb emphasizes that when we choose to shape and direct our children in the right way — we do the will of God and will enjoy our kids and family life as we grow older because we will be able to look and see the positive results that come out of the investment of our hard work and time into the lives of our children.
Ever feel unappreciated or worthless as a mom? This is Part 3 in the series “Motherhood: Joys, Challenges, and Trials.” Check out Part 1: “Why Your Work as a Stay-at-Home Mom Matters” and Part 2: “Your High and Holy Calling as a Mom.”
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*Updated May 16, 2019.