“Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” This is a proverb, not a promise. It’s not a guarantee, but a general truth. As I’ve said before, the Proverbs are not promises from God, but general observations and maxims. Ironically, King Solomon himself learned this one negatively, having failed to live it out himself: 1 Kings. 11.4: “As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father had been.” After all, to bring up a child in the way he should go, you must travel that way yourself once in a while.
The idea behind “train” is beginning, inaugurating, initiating, and dedicating—getting the child going. It implies:
– time. It takes time and is not immediate
– effort. A reasonable equation of parenting is difficulty + perseverance
– purpose. There is nothing random or relative about parenting well
– Direction. Proverbs would teach you that the right direction is that of morality and truth.
“In the way he should go” is literally, “According to the measure of his way.” There is much disagreement about what was meant here, and there are three distinct and different possibilities:
1. The sense of his own natural characteristics and style and manner
2. The way of life parents intend him to pursue
3. The way in which he ought to go by divine intent
The first would imply that parents have to discover his or her personality and gifts and guide the child in that direction, not forcing him against his inborn nature. If the father played football and wants his child to be a football player, but the kid likes music, training him up in the way he should go means let him do music.
The second means that the parents decide what’s best for the child and train the child physically, intellectually, morally, and spiritually down the road he or she SHOULD go.
The third is the way of righteousness—the godly way of life, and initiating a discipline while the child is impressionable.
The verse could be taken in any of these three ways, and it is unknown which is intended. They all their merits for parents, and we’d like to think that ultimately all three could be the same road, in the best of circumstances.
“And when he is old he will not turn from it.” Again, this is not a guarantee, but a maxim. Generally speaking, all things being equal, if you raise a child to be who God made him/her to be, living a godly and wise example before them and teaching them the ways of God, righteousness, wisdom, morality, and truth, it will be ingrained in their soul and they will follow in the steps of the Lord. But it is no guarantee. Sometimes parents do everything well, and the children choose rebellion. But generally speaking, right begets right.