Train a child in the way he should go,
and when he is old he will not turn from it.
Proverbs 22.6 (NIV)
All too often the phrase "in the way he should go" has been interpreted to mean the ways of godliness or righteousness. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that emphasis; however, that's not what this proverb is aiming for. An error in perception, or the way we see this verse, ends up causing an error in the way this verse is applied.
The words "in the way he should go" are taken from a Hebrew phrase that literally reads "according to the tenor of his ways." Here's what it looks like:
Train up the child according to the tenor of his way,
and when he is old he will not depart from it.
Here's how this plays out. The temptation is to use a "one size fits all" approach to parenting; in other words, everybody is treated the same. Resisting that temptation allows for each child to be perceived, or seen, for the ways in which God created them. An awareness of their disposition or individual character then guides you in how teaching and correction are approached. It helps you to know how best to help them become who God created them to be.
My wife and I have been blessed with three children; a son and two daughters. And believe you me, each one of our three is d-i-f-f-e-r-e-n-t. But they all have a common request of their father: Dad, look at me. The power of perception. Dads, when we look, what do we see?
There are the obvious differences between boys and girls. The book of Genesis clearly speaks into this: He [God] created them male and female. The literature is abundant these days on the differences between the two. Miss seeing that first important distinction and you’ll miss much about your children and they may quite possibly miss much about themselves.
There are also the telling differences that show up as a result of birth order. It's silly to straight-jacket your kids into some behavior due to their birth order, but it's just as silly to dismiss it outright. Those birth order books sell because there's something that rings true in them. Think about the birth order examples in scripture: Jacob the trickster and hairy, firstborn Esau; Joseph the dreamer and his jealous brothers; Mary who wanted nothing more than to "be" while Martha was always compelled to "do."
And then there are those subtle differences that take a sharp eye to spot; they're what the Hebrews referred to as "the tenor of his ways." This is where it takes courage to be a father to your son or daughter, for I'm talking about looking and listening and noticing, otherwise known as "paying attention." And like the first word of that phrase (paying), it'll cost you something. Not being willing to pay that price may be what Paul was warning about when he wrote, "Fathers, do not exasperate your children" (Eph. 6.4). How many times have you heard an exasperated adult voice bemoan, "My father never really saw me?" Yeah, a bunch.
Do you remember the story of Adam, the first man? One of his duties was to see each created animal and then name them. There was a power inherent in his naming of each one. That same power is available for fathers today. We're not naming rhinos or beagles, but we do have the opportunity to really look into the lives of our children and name what we see.
Does your daughter have artistic gifts? How about buying her a Georgia O'Keeffe book and reading together about that southwestern saint? Or maybe your son loves to sing. You're not sure where that came from but the point is he loves it and furthermore, he's pretty good. Do you have the courage to name what you see? Can you encourage him and support his efforts to develop that gift? Or maybe your daughter adores animals. Is there anything truly wrong with having a pet turtle, a beta fish, a dog, and maybe even a rabbit? Truly looking into her life may reveal a heart that is gentle towards God's creatures and you, Dad, may see it when no one else does. She desperately needs you to wield your God-given power and help her grow into who she is. Who else is going to do that?
Gentlemen, remember what they want and need: "Dad, look at me."