Equip: Parenting in Proverbs

In our midweek Christian family night, we just completed a two-week study of parenting in the Book of Proverbs. Two proverbs often come up in discussions of parenting.  “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (ESV), is one. “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him,” (from which we get the English proverb, “Spare the rod and spoil the child”) is another. Both are found in Proverbs 22, verses 6 and 15, respectively.  Together these two proverbs form a tightly bound parenting model, but we need some context to use them profitably.  

We were reminded that a proverb is a concrete comparison that demands practical application. Concreteness is the verbal art of capturing spiritual values in everyday figures of speech.  An example is the fictional setting of father and mother home schooling their children found in chapters 1-9 of Proverbs.  Especially noteworthy is the personification allegory of parental instruction as Lady Wisdom in Prov 8:22-31.  Proverbs capture children’s imagination with lively comparisons which stick with them throughout life.  These comparisons can be verbal or contextual. “An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips” (Prov 24:26) brings truth telling to life by comparing it to a kiss.  “Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly” (Prov 26:11) depicts stupidity in the form of repulsive canine behavior.  Another example is the English proverb, “It ain't over till the fat lady sings,” which means the outcome is not known until the end.  This proverb comes from the context of opera, but it is often cited at the end of sporting events.  Finally a proverb enacts its own authority by requiring application to everyday life. A proverb arouses the imagination by posing a verbal riddle that once solved adds to the knowledge and lived experience of the hearer.  

Through their unique art, Proverbs convey wisdom.  Wisdom is the practical application of God’s moral order revealed in everyday life.  “The Lord gives wisdom” through his revealed covenant order with King Solomon at its head as God’s representative (Prov 2:5, Cf. 1 Kings 3:9).  By literary convention, Solomon’s wisdom often appears in the mouths of mother and father. It is no accident. Moral formation of children at home is upstream from culture.  God’s moral order enacted through Solomon and disseminated through parents is that basis for culture.  The foundation of wisdom is the “fear of the Lord.”  The fear of the Lord is the emotional and intellectual capacity to bring God into consideration in everyday life where neither priest nor prophet have specific instructions. 

With this background, we turn to those two proverbs mentioned above.  The first thing to recognize is that these proverbs belong to one another. Proverbs 1-9 contain longer poems, and Proverbs 22:17 to 24:22 contain thirty sayings from anonymous wise men.  Between them lies a collection of shorter proverbs in chapters 10:1 through 22:16 attributed to Solomon.  Though short, these proverbs belong to coherent units that form a series of lessons.  The last lesson in the Solomonic section is Proverbs 22:1-16.  

The lesson starts with the proverb: “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold” (v 1).  This proverb is addressed to the child, and the following proverbs instruct the child how to acquire a good reputation.  The child must choose between the “fear of the Lord” (v 4) and the “paths of the wicked” (v 5).  The key word “path” or “way” is taken up again in the famous proverb “Dedicate a youth according to what his way dictates; even when he becomes old, he will not depart from it” (v 6, Waltke translation).  This proverb is addressed to the parent.  The promise to parents that good parenting has lifelong consequences must be balanced with the preceding proverbs putting before the child a choice between good and bad reputations.  It is an ironclad truth that wise instruction results in good character, and character will build reputation, but the child must choose to receive parental instruction.  

In addition, the path to wisdom is modified by the inclinations, capacities and personality of each child.  “His way” is the literal reading of the text, not an impersonal “the way.”  Though the goal of a good reputation is the same, each child requires different means to reach that goal.  In her personal testimony, Elise Orlando shared stories about different responses from each child to her parenting.  The differences were so great that she had to change parenting styles for each child. 

The second well-known parable about corporate punishment is the penultimate verse in this collection.  In other words, spanking is the parents’ last resort.  “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far away” (Prov 22:15), Between this verse and the earlier promise to parents in verse 6 come proverbs characterizing the results of good or poor character, including the rich, the unjust, the generous, the mocker and the well-spoken person.  A pivotal proverb reminds the youth about the Lord’s protection of good character by exposing the false, misleading lies of easy money and easy sex (Prov 22:12-14).  The premise of these proverbs is that without parents and without God’s help, children are inevitably drawn by seductive words towards lazy or immoral persons.  

As we all know, delayed gratification is hard for children to learn.  Basic human nature wants what it wants, and wants it now.  It takes work to delay gratification.  If children don’t learn that lesson early in life, they can become selfish and sexually addicted adults.  Parents are responsible to help children seek wisdom above all else rather than follow their natural desires.  Education, rewards and example are the best tools.  But parents need a bottom line, and corporal punishment applied properly is that bottom line.  It should be the last and least used tool, as it is the last promise to parents in this collection of proverbs.  The only proverb remaining after this one is a dire warning about a wasted life (Prov 22:16).  In other words, God will do through consequences what parents could do with pliable children.  

Together these two proverbs give parents tremendous promise and awesome responsibility.  The promise is that character is king.  Parents can take comfort in the promise that character will stay with their children through the vicissitudes of life.  Of course, a child has to accept parents’ guidance.  The same promise implies an awesome responsibility. Parenting is hard work. At every stage along children’s development, parents provide either good or bad instructions through word or deeds on the path to wise character that reflects God’s own wisdom.