When I was a new mama, I used to cling so tightly to the scripture which said ‘Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6 KJV). I interpreted it as a sort of formula. I thought the scripture meant, “If you point your children in the right direction, they will never stray off the path. In other words: Perfect parents = perfect children. I worked my hardest to make all the right choices, say all the right words, do all the right things.
And then I had tweens.
Oh, is there anything more humbling than watching a teenager grow up? In the beginning, I was a hot mess. I felt so lost- I couldn’t tell you up from down. My sweet, sweet boy who I had taught to have wonderful manners, was suddenly obsessed with bodily functions at inopportune moments. The tiny voice declaring “Yes, Ma’am” devolved into prepubescent angry squeaks “In a minute! Gosh! Why are you always on my case?” The smart child who was reading novels in kindergarten suddenly couldn’t remember where he put his jacket. Or backpack. Or a trashcan. Or deodorant. *faint*
My previous formula played in my head. If I believed it, really believed it, I would have to also believe the reverse. If a child is going in the right direction, it would be completely due to great parenting. If a child were to stray in any area at all? Then obviously, to me anyway, the sole responsibility would land squarely on the shoulders of the parents.
It wasn’t long before the pressure came to be too much. If you’ve ever met a 12 year old child, you know that they are in a phase of extreme trial-and-error. Every time my child struggled, I felt like a failure. I worried nonstop about his direction. How would he ever end up going the right way forevermore if he was stuck with this terrible mama?
Then one day, a revelation. On the radio was an interview with a woman whose name I cannot remember. What I can’t forget is what she said. “Parents, Proverbs 22 is not a guarantee. God is not telling us that our children will lose their free will if we are perfect parents. This is an unfair pressure we put on ourselves. He’s saying that once our children understand the right way to go, they’ll never be able to get away from knowing what the truth is. They can still make their own mistakes and bad choices, they can still stray from us, from God. They’ll just always know there’s a better way.”
Tears running down my cheeks, I got it. How did I expect to grow perfect children when perfect people don’t even exist? Why did I think I could beat the system of free will by controlling every bit of my child’s life? Why did I think that I could raise children who never needed to make mistakes, choose the wrong thing, find out the hard way?
Over the years, as I study human growth and development, I find that this scripture has even deeper meaning. I have come to believe that “train them up in the way they should go” is less about pointing children toward the direction of impossible perfection, and more about finding God’s purpose for their unique traits and aiming them toward the direction He has for them. As we point out their God-given gifts and talents, as we respect the way they were created (Loud! Introverted! Adventurous! Creative! Passionate! Organized! Loyal! Humble! Weird! Special!) we are giving them a tremendous head start onto their path.
As our children head out in whatever direction they choose, won’t it be a wonderful thing for them to have a compass that constantly tells them that they have value and purpose? What if our job isn’t to strap our children to a train that’s headed in the right direction, but to hand them that compass and point them in the right way? What a tremendous relief that is to me. May it be so for you, too.