Training camp does not evoke images of ease and comfort for anyone who has taken part in one. Paul “Bear” Bryant’s legendary training camp in Junction, Texas after he took the reins as head coach of Texas A&M included all-day workouts in 100 degree heat—without offering the now customary water breaks—followed by team meetings in the evenings. Most professional athletes admit that training camp remains the most difficult part of their job—even with the water breaks and better conditions of today. Yet, few people ever argue against the need for training camp—including those players. They recognize that, while the rigors and workload of camp offer little enjoyment, they remain important in preparing for the challenges of the season and essential if any team hopes to win. Although the analogy has its limitations, childhood is its own form of training camp under the direction of Head Coach Dad and Assistant Coach Mom (Eph. 6:4). But childhood training has a far more important goal than a winning season; instead, God designed it to make possible a winning life. Thus, Proverbs 22:6 instructs parents, “Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it.”
This verse implies many important principles. First, it recognizes the essentiality of training. A child left on his own will not learn the skills of how to know God, how to interact socially with some degree of good manners, or how to succeed in life. This requires dedication from the parents to the child, the underlying meaning of the Hebrew. Second, it acknowledges that a proper way exists that a child should follow. While some have argued that this means “Train a child according to his personality,” such an interpretation makes little sense when coupled with the phrase that follows. To the contrary, the responsibility of parents is to establish the proper standards of right and wrong behavior for their children and guide them as they begin their journey so that they learn to stay within the proper spiritual boundaries. This point appears lost on many parents today whose emphasis on higher education and worldly success often sacrifices the “the way he should go” in the process. Third, the aim of parenting focuses on preparing children for adulthood. While children should be able to enjoy some carefree days filled with laughter built on relationships, ultimately they must learn the skills necessary to address challenges, handle adversity, and grow spiritually throughout all of life. Any preparation in childhood lacking these characteristics remains incomplete. Finally, this text implies a goal of lifelong faithfulness. Godly parents desire far more than compliance while in the home; they long for faithfulness after their children leave home.
While this verse is just one among many in this chapter, the other proverbs provide powerful support and guidance for it. Surely training children should include teaching them to have integrity (Prov. 22:1) and faith in God (Prov. 22:2). I would hope that parents would recognize the importance of teaching their children how to anticipate problems so as to avoid harm (Prov. 22:3). Children everywhere would benefit from learning the value of humility and reverence (Prov. 22:4), the consequences of following moral perversion (Prov. 22:5), the importance of limiting debt (Prov. 22:7), and the law of sowing and reaping (Prov. 22:8). The lessons are endless, though childhood is not.
Childhood provides time and opportunity to learn these lessons and more with the benefit of guidance and with the opportunity to fail…but with a net…to learn how to overcome and succeed. This is the purpose of training camp: to place problems and failures in a learning environment to give those present a better hope of success when it counts most. As with football, children will still make mistakes when training camp has ended. They will still struggle when they encounter a problem greater than they expected. They will hurt, they will cry, they will even sin. But parents expect this because they hurt, cry, and sin too. No one has played a truly perfect game. And only Jesus has lived a truly perfect life. But by working together, parents and children can find how the power of love and discipline, guided by the precepts of God, provide greater joy in the moment, lasting love throughout life, and real hope in eternity.