The NIV renders Proverbs 22:6, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” This verse has very often been a source of comfort for parents worldwide. Yet for the same reason it has been a comfort, ironically enough, it has also been a terrible burden for others. When children are young, these God-fearing people are promised that if they only make sure their children are raised in a biblical environment, then whatever bumps may lie ahead, their children will remain faithful to the Lord. Unfortunately, as a great many godly parents can attest, things don’t always seem to work out that way. A large number of our youth are losing their faith in high school and college, and a great many never come back to the faith. These parents are forced to conclude that they didn’t, after all, “train [their children] in the way [they] should go” and that they were not the godly parents they hoped to be.
I would like to suggest, however, that we have completely misunderstood this verse. As wonderful as this promise may be to have, it simply isn’t found here (or, I would contend, anywhere in Scripture!). Even God, who is the perfect Father, found that the “children” He raised rebelled against Him (cf. Isa. 1:2).
The basic problem is with our translation of the Hebrew text. The word “should” is simply not found in the verse. The phrase in question is al-peni darkko, which is literally translated “according to his way” (see the margin of the NASB for evidence of this). The work derek literally means “a way.” When you add –ko on the end, it means “his,” and it is translated that way in many other passages (Prov. 8:22; 11:5; 14:8; 16:9, 17, etc.).
This means that far from being a promise, this verse is actually a warning, as it should be translated, “Train up a child according to his own way, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” In other words, if you don’t discipline a child when they are young, then when they are old, there will be no way to turn them from their self-destructive path.
This understanding not only has full support of the grammar, but it also as the full support of the theology found in Proverbs with reference to children. Prov. 19:18 says that if we discipline our children there is hope for them and if we don’t then we are actually taking part in their death. Prov. 22:15 says that foolishness has to be disciplined out of a child, and 29:15 says that discipline makes a child wise, but an undisciplined child is a disgrace to his parents. And, of course, we have all heard Prov. 13:24: “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him,” from which we get the statement, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”
The Bible doesn’t guarantee that if we raise our children to fear God then they will always be faithful. Children are human beings with their own free will. It does promise (or warn), however, that if we don’t raise our children to fear God—if we don’t discipline them the way we should—then they will be hardened in their foolishness, and that, I’m afraid, is a “promise” we can count on. Parents of wayward children need not get down on themselves. Parents of young children should take this very seriously.