One of the most common laments I've heard from parents is, "Doesn't the Bible say that if I'd been a better parent, my child would be walking with the Lord today?" Proverbs 22:6 has been the source of tremendous guilt and confusion for parents of prodigals. I want to clarify what this passage means. It reads:

"Train up a child in the way he should go,
And when he is old he will not depart from it."


Many people look at this verse as a promise instead of a proverb. Promises are always true; proverbs are generally true, but not always. For example, another proverb says that a man who sleeps with harlots will lose his wealth. While it is true that sexual sins often cost people a lot of money, I know some men who regularly visit prostitutes but are still very rich.

The proverb about training up children has been explained in many ways. Some scholars say it means to instruct a child on his level so he will understand the truth. Others say that the term "in the way he should go" refers to a child's "bent." That is, parents should notice each child's particular gifts, skills, and personality, and give encouragement and direction based on these traits. So a child who is gifted in art could be given lessons in painting and sculpting; a child who is athletically talented should be given opportunities to play sports; and a child who is good at math is encouraged to pursue more challenging course work in algebra and calculus.

This interpretation makes good sense to me, and I think parents are right in observing and nurturing the particular skills of each of their children, but as I have studied this passage of Scripture, I believe there is yet another meaning for us to consider. Psychologists tell us that our childhood profoundly shapes our lives. How we are raised affects us for the rest of our lives, for good or ill. If a child is told she is fat and ugly, she will probably always be insecure about her appearance. If a child is abused or neglected, those scars will make him cautious in relationships even if the gaping wound is healed. If a child is constantly nagged and criticized, he will doubt his abilities.

These are the negative aspects we usually tend to focus on, but there is also a positive side to the same principle. If a child is exposed to the ways and the truth of God when he is young, these messages will stay in his heart for the rest of his life. Though his choices and behavior may take him far from God, the truth of God stays lodged in his mind. Proverbs 22:6 is not a promise that the child will never depart from God's path, but instead it reminds us that God's message stays rooted in that person's life and cannot be eradicated.

Do you remember what happened to the Prodigal Son? He had gone as far away from his father as he could go. He was feeding hogs in a foreign land, penniless and friendless, but even there, he remembered his father's goodness and strength. Even there he realized the truth of how his father provided for him, his brother, and the servants. Even there, he was not beyond the grace to repent and come home.

Dr. Earl Radmacher, a Bible scholar and former seminary president, comments on this verse:

"Some have taken the line 'when he is old he will not depart from it' as a promise. They believe it to be a guarantee that proper parenting will always result in a child's salvation. Proverbs, however, present general principles, not promises. This verse gives parents the assurance that the lessons learned in childhood will last a lifetime. Whether their child learns to follow the Lord will, in part, depend on his or her own choices. But the lessons driven home at the crucial stage of childhood will not go away."*

Nowhere in Scripture does it say that if you had just done the right thing as a parent, your child would be walking with God today. No, the Scriptures teach two important lessons: (1) Each person has a free will and a sinful nature, and (2) If your child was exposed to the word of God, that truth is still there to be tapped by the Holy Spirit when your child "comes to his senses" and remembers. These truths help us clarify responsibility so we can be relieved of guilt.

* The Nelson Study Bible, Earl D. Radmacher, Th.D, General Editor (Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, 1997), p. 1064


Excerpted from Parenting Prodigals by Phil Waldrep. Reprinted with permission from Baxter Press. Click here for more information about Parenting Prodigals.