Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray. (Proverbs 22.6)
We most often hear this wisdom in conjunction with faith formation. Pastors and lay leaders quote it to urge parents to invest time in teaching their children godly ways. There is a promise in this verse—a guarantee, if you will, that the child who learns to value spiritual principles at an early age will follow them for life. I can’t attest to its validity in other families. But it proved itself in my own. My folks took this promise to heart, and their two sons—along with nearly all of the 50-plus young people they welcomed into their home and nurtured as surrogate parents—grew up to be committed believers.
Still, applying this verse to a strong faith foundation and leaving it there strikes me as shallow. I’m convinced it's meant to stress the importance of an overall solid education. A better translation of the Hebrew is “Initiate the child at the opening of his/her path,” encouraging parents to ensure their children enter adulthood with a strong start. When we couple this with Christ’s repeated command that we, as individuals and a community, care for our children, we are scripturally obliged to meet their educational needs with the best we can offer.
Every child deserves a strong start. Our forebears believed this, which is why they implemented public institutions and laws to provide every American child with a quality education. Yet, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, nearly one in 10 young people drops out of school. The rate more than triples in many urban areas, meaning thousands of children never reach the opening of their paths. As the Harvard Education Letter recently described, the reasons our children aren’t in school and others receive substandard education are myriad and complex, with most of them directly tied to poverty. Combined with the runaway costs of higher education and enormous debt we inflict on university students at the opening of their paths, it’s all too evident we’ve turned our hearts from what God expects of us. We’ve abdicated our scriptural duty to remove hurdles that prevent our youth from being trained in the right way. Since our neglect isn’t a new phenomenon, we’re already coping with its toll on our young, as well as the prices we pay personally, as communities, and as a nation. We can readily trace the connections between undernourished education and the socioeconomic—and spiritual—malaise that plagues us. And this is chiefly because the American response has been to move away from areas where substandard education is the norm, rather than invest the time, energy, and money to secure first-rate educations for all young Americans.
Most often, our politicians position their education policies in the context of “competing in the global economy.” They seem to believe we can’t be moved to remedy education gaps without threatening loss of profitable trade and innovation that has held the US on the top of the heap. But there’s more to it. Providing children with a strong start is God’s will. For believers, the mandate is non-negotiable. It’s not about us—or our pocketbooks. It’s about our children. If we commit our all to initiate them at the opening of their paths, when they’re grown, they’ll walk in productive, prosperous, and healthy ways.