“Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
My family had a kitten named Butterscotch. Cats are not my favorite animals, but Butterscotch grew on me. She was a nice, playful kitten. I think I decided she was okay the day she followed me, skipping (Can cats skip?) through my legs as I went out to my truck. Then there came the day when Butterscotch decided that she would use her claws to climb up the screen on our front door. I was not amused! She persisted in this activity. Simply taking her down and saying, “No,” did not help. We resorted to spraying her with a squirt bottle every time she was heard clawing her way up the screen. It seemed to be working, until the night the kids left her out all night in the pouring rain. After that, what was a little squirt from a bottle? I would squirt her, and she would shake her head and look at me as if to say, “That means nothing to me. Are you going to let me inside now, or am I going to hang on to this screen a little longer?”
Our goal with Butterscotch was behavioral modification. I wanted to train her NOT to climb on the screen. I did not sit down with Butterscotch in my lap to pray with her and show her from the Scriptures about obeying her parents. We did not have a discussion about the moral consequences of her disobedience. I did not try to reason with her about the cost of replacing the screen due to her climbing. I simply wanted the behavior to stop!
Reinforcement, whether it be positive (rewards) or negative (punishment), may be sufficient when teaching a dog to sit or a cat to not climb up your screen door, but behavior modification is not the end goal of training up a child in the way he should go. Unfortunately, too often the training of our children is only centered on making them do, or not do, something. Our child behaves at the store, so we let them pick out a toy. Our child embarrasses us at the store, so we punish them. Are rewards and consequences a part of training? Absolutely. I do not want anyone to think that I am speaking out against “the rod of correction” or taking your kids for pizza as a reward for a task well done. However, rewards and consequences are only a small part of training. Our children are not circus animals trained to perform tricks to impress the crowd. God has a higher calling for them. Only focusing on changing behavior is certainly the easy route, and it seems to get quicker results; but, while we may look on the outward appearance, God looks on the heart. Training that consists of behavior modification alone does not prepare the young person for adulthood, because you have only trained him to walk in the way YOU would have him go.
Narrowing (a.k.a. “Training up”) a child has the focus of “in the way he should go.” What does this phrase mean? What way should he, or she, go?
Proverbs has a lot to say about “ways.” (For a variety of teaching, see Proverbs 1:15; 2:8, 20; 3:23; 4:11; 6:23; 8:20, 22; 9:6; 10:29; 12:28; 15:19; 19:3 and 28:10. To adapt a phrase from Pastor Ricky Kurth, “These will preach!”) I point your attention first to Proverbs 14:12. It states, “There is a way which seems right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” We are not raising them in man’s ways (my insincere apologies to Dr. Spock) for there is no lasting benefit. You need to be careful sounding off amen’s too soon. This verse also means that your children are not simply to be raised in your ways. There is a higher, more important way for your child to go.
Moving from Proverbs 14:12, I call your attention to Proverbs 10:17, which says, “He is in the way of life that keeps instruction: but he that refuses reproof errs.” The young person that keeps instruction is in the way of life. However, this is not a wide sweeping statement that your children must obey you or else. This is referencing a specific set of instructions. To understand the instruction the mentor is supposed to be using, you need to understand the basis for the Proverbs. Every Proverb is talking about wisdom as opposed to foolishness. The mentor is to be instructing his protégé in wisdom, because this is what narrowed the protégé in the way of life.
Solomon gave an introduction to the Proverbs in Chapter One. To sum up his introduction, he instructs the readers to seek wise instruction in order to live life. Verse Seven declares, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Our instruction is to start, and continue, in the Lord. This is the difference between simply changing behavior and truly instilling values. The first makes them dependent upon you. The goal of the second is to make them dependent upon the Lord and His ways.
The Lord’s instruction is not a mystery. It has been revealed in the Word of God. Psalm 119:105 teaches, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” We narrow (train up) our children in the truths of God’s Word. During Solomon’s day, God’s Word to Israel was the Law. Today, we have the Gospel of the Grace of God as recorded in Paul’s Epistles. Morality remains the same (respect for elders, no cheating, no lying, love one another, etc.); the message surrounding it has changed (Grace versus Law). God remains the same (eternal, sovereign, just, good, love, etc.); the way He is working has changed (beseeching versus demanding). It is God’s Word rightly divided that will enlighten the way our young people are to walk. By the way (pun intended), rightly dividing the Word does not mean “just use Paul’s Epistles.” It means we are able to recognize the applicable parts from the entirety of God’s Word. There are even things in some of Paul’s books like Corinthians 14 that we need to be able to rightly divide.
Finally, I will remind you of Proverbs 21:2. “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes: but the LORD ponders the hearts.” This is a final reminder that behavior modification is not the end goal. God can see right through the outward appearance. He knows the hearts. As important as memorizing Bible verses is, the desire is not simply to know the words on the page, but the Person of Jesus Christ. It is not the quoting of Scripture where wisdom begins. Wisdom begins with a reverent fear of the Lord. This is true of the Old Testament, the Gospels, the coming Kingdom, and the Age of Grace.
You can forbid mini-skirts for your daughter while she is under your roof, and you should, but you also want her to make decisions of modesty when she is out on her own. You can disallow certain internet sites for your son while he is at home, but you want him to keep that habit as he leaves the roost.
“The way he should go,” then, is the reality of the life in Jesus Christ, being dependent upon Him as opposed to satisfying the opinion of a human being. This is why Paul instructs fathers to train their children in the nurture and admonition OF THE LORD (Ephesians 6:4). There was a time when Paul seemed to have it all together as far as outward appearances. He needed to realize that his behavior needed to be focused on a Person. I’ll give the Holy Spirit (via Paul) the final word: “…I count all things loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord…And be found in Him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the Law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death” (Phil. 3:8-10).