What Does “Train up a Child in the Way He Should Go” Really Mean for Parents?

Doesn't Proverbs 22:6 promise that kids who are raised properly by their parents will turn out alright? That's not been our experience at all. Our college-age son walked away from his faith a year ago and started engaging in some extremely destructive behaviors. Now his younger sister seems to be following in his footsteps. We're a Christian family, and we've always tried to raise our kids in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Where did we go wrong?


First, you need to know that you’re not alone. Many other parents are wrestling with issues similar to your situation. Some find themselves in an ongoing struggle with rebellious teenagers. Others have watched adult children completely reject Christianity despite everything they’ve done. With or without cause, they blame themselves for the spiritual waywardness of their children. Then, they assume full responsibility for the unfortunate choices their offspring have made. That’s why we feel so strongly that what they need from us is not additional criticism or accusation. Instead, your kids need your compassion, love, and understanding. Naturally, this attitude informs our way of looking at the specific question you’ve raised: “What does the Bible really mean when it says, ‘Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it’ (Proverbs 22:6)?”

For obvious reasons, many parents in your position regard this verse as a pronouncement of condemnation. They reason that the proof is in the pudding. Then, they tell themselves that if only they had done a better job of “training up” their child, he or she would never have “departed” from the right path. Also, we realize that these feelings may be justified in some situations. But we’d also suggest that this is not universally the case. In any event, we’re convinced that it isn’t fair to draw any such conclusion from Proverbs 22:6 alone.

A Perspective from Seminary

Why not? Because a careful study of Scripture leads us to believe that this verse was never meant to be understood as an absolute promise, but rather as a statement of probability. Such, in fact, is the view of many reputable theologians and biblical scholars. Consider the following passage from The Bible Knowledge Commentary, prepared by the faculty of Dallas Theological Seminary, an institution nationally recognized for its intense commitment to the literal interpretation of God’s Word. Regarding Proverbs 22:6 the authors said:

Some parents, however, have sought to follow this directive but without this result. Their children have strayed from the godly training the parents gave them. This illustrates the nature of a proverb. A proverb is a literary device whereby a general truth is brought to bear on a specific situation. Many of the proverbs are not absolute guarantees, for they express truths that are necessarily conditioned by prevailing circumstances. This may be because of the self-will or deliberate disobedience of an individual who chooses to go his own way – the way of folly instead of the way of wisdom. For that he is responsible. It is generally true, however, that most children who are brought up in Christian homes, under the influence of godly parents who teach and live God’s standards, follow that training. (page 953)

As a footnote, we should clarify that not all of the verses in Proverbs fall into this category. For example, Proverbs 3:5-6 is neither a probability nor a promise. It is a statement of simple fact. In connection with this observation, it’s worth pointing out that the style and content of Solomon’s proverbs change noticeably beginning at chapter 10. If you read them carefully, you will find that there are numerous proverbs in this latter section of the book which can hardly be taken as absolute promises from God.

Practical Next Steps

Bottom line: if your conscience is clear before the Lord, we’d encourage you to take heart and stop blaming yourself for the mistakes of your children. Here are some next steps to approach your question: What does training up a child in the way he should go really mean?

  1. You can’t make their decisions for them or control their relationship with God. If they have rebelled against you and rejected your faith in spite of your best efforts to defuse their hostile attitude and behavior, try to take some comfort in the thought that you’ve been faithful to your responsibilities and obligations as a parent.
  2. Remember that the final chapter of their story is not written yet. God is able to use their youthful errors to teach them valuable lessons. Then, He brings them at last to a place of humility and repentance. This is evident from the examples of many biblical characters such as Jacob, Joseph’s brothers, and Jonah.
  3. Remember the exact words in which Proverbs 22:6 expresses its “statement of probability:” “When he is old he will not depart from it.”

7 Traits of Effective Parenting: Intentionality

Intentionality is simultaneously a vague and specific concept. In your parenting journey, there will be certain moments where being intentional with your kids is easy and at the front of your mind. Other times, parenting with intentionality will feel difficult and even impossible. At times, honestly admitting this reality is necessary. Training a child up in the way they should go, however, requires your commitment to parenting with intentionality throughout your children’s various ages and stages.

As you pair your child’s unique personality with your own character traits as a parent, you can grow in your understanding of how to parent with intentionality. We mentioned earlier that training up a child in the way they should go really involves parenting with compassion, love and generosity over exclusively dishing out help and criticism. Parenting with intentionality resembles this picture of compassion and love. Finally, your ability to parent with intentionality will directly translate to a positive relationship with your child throughout their life.


Article Resources

Establishing Boundaries With Adult Kids

Parenting Adult Children

Counseling Resources

If you’d like to discuss your concerns at greater length with a member of our staff, please feel free to give our Counseling department a call.

Book Resources

If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.

Setting Boundaries With Your Adult Children: Six Steps to Hope and Healing for Struggling Parents

Praying God’s Word: Breaking Free From Spiritual Strongholds

Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life

Peacemaking for Families

Prodigals and Those Who Love Them: Words of Encouragement for Those Who Wait

Bringing Home the Prodigals

Losing Control & Liking It: How to Set Your Teen (and Yourself) Free

Why Christian Kids Rebel

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