Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it. — (Pr. 22:6)
Is Proverbs 22:6 a promise or a warning? The phrase, in the way he should go, is not translated in a manner true to the Hebrew. It should be according to his (own) way. Thus, you have in 22:6 a proverbial prediction that a child brought up and trained to follow his own road at the beginning will be fixed in that path for life.
The proverb could be viewed as an encouraging "promise" in two possible ways. One, the most common, sees it as teaching that if you properly "parent" your child according to his covenant calling, it will result in lifelong faithfulness. The other "positive" way of viewing it yields a different meaning. Solomon would be speaking of the early identification of a vocational inclination in your son. If this inclination is cultivated, it will result in a lifelong and fruitful devotion to his chosen craft. As such, the proverb could be taken as some sort of inducement to early apprenticeships. If you see your son loves horses, e.g., get him trained early on in that field by an expert. The phrase train up would then have the meaning of "dedicate" or even "launch." Get him going in employing his natural gifts early and he'll use them in that field for life.
But there is a third way to view this verse, and that not as a promise at all, but as a warning. The word would be teaching us here that if you bring up a child according to his own (sinful, natural) inclinations, you've ruined him for life. Thus, this proverb would be a complement to many other proverbs that treat the same subject. For example, 22:15 says, "Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him," and 19:18 warns: "Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying." By saying while there is hope, we find the author suggesting that there will be a time when training or disciplining will be, humanly speaking, vain, hopeless, fruitless, and useless. If you let him follow his depraved instincts out of the gate (as per 22:6), you'll not get him back onto the path later in life.
This last way of interpreting 22:6 has the most to commend it. First, it permits the literal rendering to convey a coherent message without tinkering. Second, it is supported by the discovery of very similar instructions and warnings when the same subject (child-rearing) is treated within the same inspired book. Third — and this is vitally important when testing the proper interpretation of an inspired proverb — it is true to life and common experience. "There is little hope for children who are educated wickedly. If the dye has been in the wool, it is hard to get it out of the cloth," says Jeremiah Burroughs. And many have noted, as did William Gurnall, that the Christian "[r]eligion does not grow without planting, but will die even where it is planted, if not watered. Atheism, irreligion, and profaneness are weeds that will grow without setting, but they will not die without plucking up." Let a child follow his own way when young and he'll grow up to be a "garden" of weeds.
Above and beneath all possible interpretations of Proverbs 22:6, however, is a presupposition of the greatest importance: How parents raise their children matters. Those who start their thinking with election rather than covenant can easily fall into some sort of unbiblical fatalism. But since the Proverbs (not to mention the rest of Scripture) tell us of diverse outcomes resulting from different human actions, we are safely led to believe that the way we raise our children is a very important matter indeed, one which, in more than a manner of speaking, could very well impact where they will spend eternity.
It is never an honor to God for his people to speak of his sovereignty in such a way as to relieve themselves of their responsibilities. From Scripture, we are taught to believe that we can and ought to have such influence over our children that it is normal for it to lead unto salvation, with God's blessing and the support of the covenant community (cf. Gen. 18:16-19; 1 Tim. 3:4,5 and Tit. 1:6; note also 2 Tim. 3:14,15).
Just so, we ought to know that our action or inaction could well lead to their damnation. And, if we fail to heed God's warnings and guidance found throughout Scripture, at the last day we will not be able to plead God's decree in our defense!
Seeing that hell is eternal, torturous separation from God and comfort, one would think that a parent's most fervent desire would be to aggressively and self-consciously train up his children to escape perdition and find refuge and fullness of life in God through Christ and covenant. Yet many regard this as just too much work.
For those so utterly perverse as to be indifferent to the matter, I present a method to make it a certainty. Here, in 18 easy elements, is the proven formula for how to send your children to hell:
1. Raise your child to expect to get his own way. Ignore with all your power the Biblical counsel of Bishop Ryle in his little classic, The Duties of Parents:
First, then, if you would train your children rightly, train them in the way they should go, and not in the way that they would. Remember children are born with a decided bias towards evil, and therefore if you let them choose for themselves, they are certain to choose wrong.
The mother cannot tell what her tender infant may grow up to be — tall or short, weak or strong, wise of foolish: he may be any of these things or not — it is all uncertain. But one thing the mother can say with certainty: he will have a corrupt and sinful heart. It is natural to us to do wrong. "Foolishness," says Solomon, "is bound in the heart of a child" (Prov. xxii. 15). "A child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame" (Prov. xxix. 15). Our hearts are like the earth on which we tread; let it alone, and it is sure to bear weeds.
If, then, you would deal wisely with your child, you must not leave him to the guidance of his own will. Think for him, judge for him, act for him, just as you would for one weak and blind; but for pity's sake, give him not up to his own wayward tastes and inclinations. It must not be his likings and wishes that are consulted. He knows not yet what is good for his mind and soul, any more than what is good for his body. You do not let him decide what he shall eat, and what he shall drink, and how he shall be clothed. Be consistent, and deal with his mind in like manner. Train him in the way that is scriptural and right, and not in the way that he fancies.
If you cannot make up your mind to this first principle of Christian training, it is useless for you to read any further. Self-will is almost the first thing that appears in a child's mind, and it must be your first step to resist it.
Ignore this, I say, if you would set your child on a course bound for destruction. Instead, teach the child positive self-esteem; teach him that the greatest love is living inside of him — teach him that the world does indeed revolve around him.
2. Never spank him. Proverbs which suggest corporal punishment are barbaric and outdated (I heard a nun say so!). We are civilized. We've had the Year of the Child! We raise our consciousnesses, not paddles. Proverbs 13:24, "He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him," is wrong. Ignore it. So is 22:15. And forget 23:13,14 ("Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death").
If you are tempted to discipline corporally, try these excuses: a) "I was beaten as a child so I won't hit my children." (Of course, that's like saying "My mother was fat so I don't feed my kids.") b) It's against the law. c) My mother-in-law doesn't like it. Be creative and think of other excuses; you'll find them easy to manufacture.
3. Almost as good as not ever spanking them is spanking them senselessly and/or severely. Biblical correction is loving, firm and controlled, and its effect life-giving. We don't want that now, do we?
4. This is a favorite of many parents: never use Scripture in correction. Never explain to your child what God's mind is on a matter. Do not take Deuteronomy 6:4-9 literally. If you leave God's word out of it, you can convey to your child a belief that every conflict is nothing more than a battle of merely human wills.
5. Never admit you're wrong. If you want your children to grow up hard and hostile, don't ever let them see you humble or accepting correction. Don't ever apologize to them; don't ever swallow your pride.
6. Be a hypocrite. This is a great one to remember. Teach them by your actions that your words have no value for you.
7. Raise them to choose their own religion. After all, you can't force them to believe.
8. Don't pray with them or for them, publicly or privately. If you need an excuse, remember they once snickered at you when you tried. That's usually enough to stop a guy.
9. Avoid singing psalms and hymns with your children. But if for some reason you find you must, never explain the meaning to them.
10. Answer every religious question with "Because we've always done it this way." This is one of the most effective ways of convincing them that Christianity is merely a tradition and not the Truth.
11. Don't warn them about evolution or other popular myths. Don't inform them about heresies in history or their modern iterations. Tell them nothing about competing theologies and why orthodox churches reject them.
12. Let them express themselves in any way they choose — whether in their manner of dress, the way they wear their hair, or their language. Fads are there to be followed. If they want tattoos or multiple piercings, sit back and play the fat, passive idiot. Don't interfere. After all, it's their life. And don't even look at what they read. They have rights, you know. Don't you read ACLU bulletins?
13. Don't make them work for anything. Love, after all, must be unconditional, right? So give everything and expect nothing. (That's just what you'll get.)
14. Talk down to them from infancy on. Don't expect them to reach up to maturity--they'll meet your expectations!
15. Don't hug them or kiss them or tickle them, and be very stingy with telling them you love them. Avoid it altogether, if possible. It isn't very manly, after all.
16. Let them lie and get away with it. Prove by this that truth is at a low premium in your household.
17. Let them fritter away time, aimlessly and without purpose. Wean them from that puritanical idea that we rest well in order to work better. Try to instill in them the modern notion that work is in order to weekends--we labor so we can boogie!
18. Keep the TV on, especially commercial television. This is the easiest and surest way to direct children to the bottomless pit. Just think! It can be their third (and only real) parent, their best friend. Two hours of church on Sunday doesn't stand a prayer shaping their character when put up against 25 hours of television. Every absolute, from whatever source, will be forever relativized. Commercial television has got to be the devil's best friend, so let it own the living room, and the kitchen too. If at all possible, keep it on during dinner so it can have unrivaled claim to the title "lord and mediator of reality" in your home.
If you follow these 18 steps there is little question that your children will be among the denizens of hell.
But I rather think that you'll reject all this horrid nonsense (1-18 above) and buckle down to the most solemn responsibility God will ever call you to: parenting. If God gives us the ability to lead our children to perdition, why would anyone doubt that he gives us the ability, the responsibility — indeed, the privilege — of leading them to heaven? If we faithfully follow his method of raising covenant children, they will, all things being equal, be among the population of heaven for all eternity. What an incentive to fidelity!
The covenant continues in the line of generations, but it continues there along the path of faithfulness, not presumption. We have incomparably great and precious promises from God, as well as warnings. He warns us that doing nothing is the wrong thing. Train up a child in his own way, and when he is old, he will not depart from it. But he promises that doing the right thing will bring a harvest of fulfilled promises. Hear God musing to himself concerning his friend, Abraham: For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of Jehovah, to do righteousness and justice. To the end that Jehovah may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.
That promise is for you and for your children, for as many as the Lord our God will call. It's a promise with conditions — what joy it is to fulfill them, seeing the reward they lead to! Amen.