Will a Properly Trained Child Never Go Wrong?
Does Proverbs 22:6 teach that a properly-trained child will never go wrong? Is the “rod” mentioned in Proverbs 13:24 literal or figurative? Is it a form of abuse to spank a child?
Proverbs 22:6 reads as follows in the American Standard Translation:
Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not depart from it.
Several textual matters should be considered first. The term “train” conveys the idea of a dedication, whether of a person or thing, to the service of God. The verbal form is found in Deuteronomy 20:5 and other passages (cf. 1 Kings 8:63; 2 Chronicles 7:5), having to do with the dedication of the temple. In the current context, it would have to do with the parents’ mental resolution to train and guide their children toward eventual service on behalf of their Creator.
However, the Hebrew text more precisely says, as reflected in the footnote of the ASV, “Train up a child in the way of his going.” Some scholars suggest this indicates that wise parents will not only train their children in divine truth, but also consistent with each child’s temperament, personality, etc. (see Kaiser et al. 1996).
Combining both of the ideas suggested above, the passage seems to be saying that when godly parents determine that they will rear their children for the service of God (not as a mere appendage of life, but in passionate service), and when they are wise enough to do that training in harmony with the child’s unique personality (and every parent with more than one child acknowledges sibling individuality), that it generally will prove to be the case that the child will remain faithful to his training.
Does this mean that a good youngster can never go wrong? It does not. Every person has been granted the individual power of choice. He makes his own decisions, and sometimes they are bad ones—in spite of what he has been taught and what he knows to be right. God once said regarding Israel—whom he regarded as his “children”: “I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me” (Isaiah 1:2). Surely no one would dare suggest that the Lord was remiss in his “parental” responsibility.
Proverbs are designed to set forth general truths—not iron-clad rules that are without exceptions. Let me introduce another passage to illustrate this point.
When a man’s ways please Jehovah, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him (Proverbs 16:7).
There is a general truth here, namely, that when a person lives a godly life, which will be characterized by high, ethical standards and a benevolent disposition toward others, he will attract the admiration of his fellows—even his enemies—and such will create a more peaceful environment for him.
Of course, that will not always prove true. Some are so evil that they are not affected by the kindly conduct of others. Did Christ’s “ways” please God? Of course. Were his enemies peaceable toward him? They were not. But this fact (exception) does not negate the general principle. So similarly with the “train up a child” maxim.
Second, as to Proverbs 13:24, there is no reason to view the term “rod” in any light other than that of a literal tool of corporal punishment. One scholar has noted:
[The] failure [of the parent] to use the preventive discipline of verbal rebuke and the corrective discipline of physical punishment will end in the child’s death (Waltke 1980, 897).
No parent, of course, should physically abuse his child. To inflict physical damage is reprehensible. A properly measured spanking, however—especially in younger children who cannot yet reason effectively—certainly is not out of line. One would think that a wise parent could find a more judicious mode of administering discipline in an older youngster. Even in punishment, a child’s dignity should be respected whenever possible.
Unfortunately, however, too many parents in our modern society have been propagandized by pseudo-psychologists, who view all “hands-on” discipline as abusive.
- Kaiser, Walter et al. 1996. Hard Sayings of the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- Waltke, Bruce. 1980. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Vol. 2. Chicago, IL: Moody.