A number of years ago, I noticed my small grandson sitting in a stairwell in his parents A-frame home apparently in deep thought. I think he was about five at the time. I sat down beside him asked, “Whatcha thinkin’ about?” His reply was instant and candid, “I’m thinking about how to do bad things.”
Well at least he was honest about it! We’ve all done that haven’t we? When we were children, we contemplated how to get revenge on our enemies, how to get even with a sibling, how to steal something and get away with it, how whip the school bully, how to run away from home, or how to do something mean to someone…
As adults, we still think about how to do bad things, but we tend to be less than candid about admitting it. And, depending on our level of moral maturity, chances are we seldom actualize our nefarious plots.
When I was a young, ignorant, inexperienced parent, I thought the most important thing I could teach my three sons was obedience. I learned that I could control their behavior — so long as they were within reach of my heavy hands and loud voice. But once they were out from under my thumb, and out with their friends, they did bad things. Authoritarian parents need to learn that controlling their children’s behavior is not the main objective of childrearing.
So what is the goal of godly childrearing? The answer is found in a proverb: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6).
The Meaning of “Train”
If you take this proverb at face value, you may miss some of its meaning. For example, what does the word “train” mean? The Hebrew word translated “train” is chanak. It can be translated “train up” or “dedicate” — but the meaning goes deeper.
In the ancient Hebrew world, when a newborn baby would not take to its mother’s breasts, she, or the midwife, would rub the palate of her child with sweet, chewed dates. She might also rub some on her nipple. This often stimulated the sucking action necessary for the child to begin feeding. This action was the first “teaching” the child ever received. Consequently, the word chanak became the word for training or teaching.
The word was also used for rendering a horse submissive as, for example, does “the horse whisperer.” It also meant to “make experienced.” Yet another meaning is “to dedicate” or “consecrate” (cf. Deuteronomy 20:5; I Kings 8:63).
“The way he should go”
The whole meaning if this phrase is not apparent in the translation. A more literal translation would be “according to his way.” As A. Cohen writes: “The intention is ‘the way of uprightness and good living,’ but even this training must be according to the way suitable for the individual child…” (Soncino Commentary on Proverbs, p. 146). Another way of looking at that is that a child that is always given his own way will continue to seek his own way when he gets older. He or she must learn the right way while still young enough to learn it.
The point is, each child is an individual, and he or she must be treated as such. I have six grandchildren by two of my sons. No two are alike. “One size” of childrearing does not “fit all.” This is the problem with formulaic, legalistic childrearing approaches. They simply don’t work well. Some children are more sensitive than others. All have individual body chemistries, mentalities, skill sets, tolerances, strengths and weaknesses, sins, and idiosyncrasies. These must be recognized. The child must be reared taking all of these individual characteristics into consideration.
Furthermore, each child accumulates a unique set of experiences upon which to draw. What happens to one child doesn’t always happen to a sibling. Children contract illnesses, experience accidents, face different threats and develop different relationships. All of these affect “who they are” and more importantly, whom they will become when they are older.
Each of our children, and grandchildren, needs to be approached with a personalized psychology. Yet, the goal is similar: to teach and train him how to live successfully, and righteously. The apostle Paul worded it this way: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Our children need to grow up learning, experiencing and above all, seeing modeled, God’s way.
Effective childrearing prepares a child to live autonomously and successfully in the real world, with both God and man. It doesn’t make him eternally dependent upon his parents. Nor does it alienate him from them. The well-reared child is always ready to honor and support his parents, and the godly parent is always “there for” his child through all the unfolding stages of his or her life.
“When he is old”
This phrase is not speaking of the child’s old age, but rather of when he reaches the age of accountability at thirteen for boys, and twelve for girls. This is the time of bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah. The Hebrew word barmeans “son” and bat means “daughter.” A mitzvah is a commandment. At age thirteen the Jewish boy becomes a “son of the commandment” and at twelve, a Jewish girl becomes a “daughter of the commandment.” This means he or she is now accountable directly to God for the commandments that apply to him or her.
From birth to Bar Mitzvah is the time to training and preparation for this momentous event. Prior to this time, the child is considered “all that his parents are.” Now he must deal directly with God. If he has been properly prepared throughout his early life, he will follow God’s way and “will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6b).
“Will not turn from it”
The word “turn” or “depart from” (KJV) is from the Hebrew suwr – pronounced “soor.” It is often used for “turning aside” from the right path – from the path of God’s commandments (cf. Exodus 32:8; Judges 2:17 & Deuteronomy 9:12).
This idea of walking in the right path, and of not turning aside from it, is ubiquitous in the Bible. Think of the image of a path in the woods. We can either walk straight ahead on the path, toward the light we see at the end of it, or we can leave the path and take side trails that lead into darkness. Furthermore, we could stop dead in our tracks, do an about face, and start walking back the opposite way, away from the light.
In life, we are either moving Godward, or we are moving away from him. Repentance means halting our journey down the wrong path, and turning back toward God – toward the light. This is the journey ofteshuvah – turning or repentance.
The evil influence (yetzer hara) in the world seeks to turn the righteous from his godly direction, and move him back into the treacherous paths of darkness. It says to the man of God: “Leave this way, get off this path, and stop confronting us with the God of Israel!” (Isaiah 30:11).
A child that has been reared in God’s way will recognize that there are times when he has departed from it – that is, taken a wrong turn in life. She may find herself on a path leading away from God, instead of toward him. God advises: “Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord” (Lamentations 3:40). The journey of teshuvah begins with a change of direction. We return to the well-lit path that leads toward God. We walk in the light, rather than in the darkness of error and sin.
A child that has been “trained in the way that he should go” knows the difference between right and wrong, light and darkness, the path toward God and the many paths that lead away from him. Jesus said, “Enter in through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).
The world in general is headed in the wrong direction. It is moving incrementally farther away from God and deeper into the darkness. Only a relative handful of people out of the vast sea of humanity are moving Godward. Those who are moving deeper into the darkness are producing the fruit of darkness. The apostle Paul was blunt in the language he used to express it:
“Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderous, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these vary things but also approve of those who practice them”(Romans 1:28-32 NIV).
The natural, carnal, mind “thinks about how to do bad things” – and does them. It departs from the path of light and heads in dark directions. It celebrates sin. It renders godliness politically incorrect. The more one drifts from the path of righteousness, the more one learns to hate God and all he stands for (Romans 8:7). At the end of this path lies eternal destruction.
We should be able to see, by now, the enormous importance of “…training a child in the way he should go…” Bringing children into such a world as this is an enormous responsibility. Failure to prepare him or her for the godly life, and all of its distractions, can lead to all kinds of heartache and misery. Generally speaking, the world is swaddled in satanic darkness. As Jesus told his disciples, his followers are sheep among wolves. We need to be solidly planted on the path of righteousness in order to keep moving Godward. Sometimes the paths of righteousness lead through a valley darkened by the shadow of death (Psalm 23:3, 4). The children of God must learn not to fear the evil that casts that shadow. Jesus taught: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell”(Matthew 10:28).
I realize that’s easier said than done. It takes enormous faith and confidence in God to stand one’s ground in the face of a deadly threat. Today’s world is full of such threats. I doubt that things are going to get any better. I see no basis for optimism except perhaps for the psychological need for it. Most people, it seems, are in denial about the state of the real world. They do not grasp the magnitude of the threat. Believe me, it is real.
We have no greater responsibility than to protect our children from all that threatens them, and to prepare them to stand on their own, and on principle, when we are off the scene. Evil is on the march all over the world. If no one fights it and stops it, it will continue to advance. Nehru once said, “Evil unchecked grows. Evil tolerated poisons the whole system.” Today’s politically correct world is not only tolerating evil, it is celebrating it. It is encouraging it. A few voices of alarm are being raised, but the public’s response to them is largely apathetic or contemptuous. Edmund Burke famously said, “All that is required for evil to triumph is for a few good men to do nothing.”
Very few are actively fighting evil these days. Those who do so are viewed by the world as more evil than the evil they are fighting. They are demonized at every turn. This plays into the hands of the advancing forces of darkness.
I don’t mean to be paranoid, but there is reason for alarm. We can only deny reality for so long before it swamps us. There are many threats to peace, well-being, political and religious freedom and even life itself abroad in the world: Islamic Jihadists, resurgent communists; secular progressives and right wing Christian Dominionists. You can add to that mix any number of war lords, tin pot dictators, drug lords, neighborhood gangs and organized crime, crooked power-mad politicians, and other corrupting influences. To live in today’s world is to run a gauntlet of evil.
Preparing the children we brought into the world to live successfully in this world is a major responsibility of every parent. It’s not a job we can take casually. We must put energy into it. If we don’t do it prayerfully and conscientiously we probably won’t do it right.
As we teach, train, love and discipline our children, and seek to influence our grandchildren, we are helping shape the next generation of mankind.
As I get older, I find myself thinking about how to do good things. One of the best things we grandparents can do is impart godly values to the next generations. We can draw on the deep well of our own experience and accumulated knowledge to provide way marks on the paths toward light. We can help our progeny develop the will to do good in the world. We can teach them what Paul meant when he wrote: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).