Today, we take our oldest child to college and help her begin a wonderful, new season in her life. But, I have mixed emotions. I told a dear friend of mine that ‘I have never been so happy and so sad at the same time’. Of course, I am not alone. Many of our friends are in the same boat—casting off from their children as they navigate this next season of life more on their own.
Certainly, this doesn’t mean we are abandoning our daughter, or that we will never see her again. Trust me, she is far from the shores of true independence. But, still, all of it feels awkward and unsettling and, yet, dynamic and exciting at the same time. After all, this is what we have prayed and worked for as parents over these years. Last night as she finished packing, I looked at my daughter and saw in her eyes that she is ready for this next chapter. She is self confident and electric with anticipation about what comes next. Truly, I want this for her.
But, as the man who held her in those first moments of life—who rocked her to sleep over countless nights—who held her hand at the doorway to new places and adventures—and who watched as with each new step she became less and less mine…. Well, this is one of the hardest events of my life so far.
Before Sarai Grace was born, a friend of mine shared Proverbs 22:6 with us. It reads:
Train up a child in the way they should go and when they are old, they won’t depart from it.
This verse is exceptional, Godly wisdom for parents.
But, when you have had to spank their little hands to protect them from the hot stove, searched for the pacifier in the middle of the night, bandaged the wounded knee, and hugged them after a broken heart, you begin to see and treasure the verse in much deeper ways.
For instance-- Train up… the phrase literally means ‘to dedicate’ or ‘to consecrate’. It is used four times in the Hebrew Bible—three to celebrate the construction of a new building and then the once in Proverbs 22:6. The phrase comes from the Hebrew word, hanakh. As mentioned, one definition means to ‘dedicate’—but, in other Semitic contexts, it is also used to describe preparing the upper part of a newborn’s mouth for ‘sucking’ and ‘nursing’.
In the writer of Proverbs’ world, mid-wives would dip their fingers into date or fig juice and would caress the upper part of the newborn’s mouth to motivate the sucking or nursing instinct. Therefore, the child could more easily begin the process of taking nourishment from the mother. What a wonderful picture: ‘training’ a young baby to use their natural instinct to facilitate the most basic and important of events of its young life.
This is a powerful lesson. It reminds us that God has prepared our little ones to enter this world equipped and ready to grow. And, so, as parents we learn that our most important job is not to create something ‘new’ in our children but to nurture the wonderful gifts and instincts already placed lovingly in them by the Creator.
The next word is Child. I first thought of a ‘child’ as only that little baby deposited into my arms in those first moments of her life. But, as she grew into a toddler, then a young child, then a young girl, and, finally, a young woman--- she remained my child. In the Jewish world, the word for child meant anyone who lived under the care of their parents. Certainly, the training of a child is not supposed to last forever, but it is also much more than the phase of diapers and highchairs. I’ve been amazed at how my daughter has needed her parents as much in the last few years as in her first moments of life. The ‘needs’ are simply different than years ago.
However, the day WILL come when EVERY child must move out of the nest and expand their wings against the waiting wind.
The third phrase… in the way they should go… has always perplexed me—not in how complicated it could become, but in how simple God actually intended for it to be. Sure, there are times when the ‘way’ is more difficult and confusing. But the original phrase translated in that passage says to ‘train up a child according to their bent.’ That has a different feel to it than ‘in the way they should go’.
A ‘bent’ is the natural angle a specific tree branch grows. Each branch has a certain bent that determines how far it can bend against the forces of nature—wind, rain, the elements, etc. But, many in the Jewish world also used the phrase to describe the characteristics of a person’s personality, ‘emotional wiring’, and overall stability. Thus, our little ones come into the world with certain ‘bents’- predispositions and characteristics. If we push too hard at the ‘bent’, we can break the child’s spirit and self esteem. But, if we don’t push against the bent enough, our children never learn how strong they can be when the storm arrives.
Certainly, I never wanted to go too far or cause harm. But, I also wanted to make sure that the basic instincts with which my daughter came into the world would grow into Godly tools for becoming all that she could be.
My wife and I prayed long hours about how to ‘know and work with our child’s bent’. I wanted to get this right!
But, it was when I slowed down and just watched her that I realized she was already showing me her bent in every little word and deed. I have loved and studied the wisdom of Proverbs for many years. Proverbs 20:11 says that ‘even a child is known by her doings, whether her work is pure and whether it be right’.
Therefore, the same God-given gifts of her personality and wiring—such as knowing how to nurse—were also on display in other ways—IF only I would take the time to notice them.
Now… here’s a little aside… my oldest daughter came into the world known as, what the doctor called, ‘a lazy sucker’. That is an infant who is so docile in personality, they literally don’t learn to use the instinct for eating quickly. It is the same personality exhibited by the small one of the litter that backs away from the trough so the bigger siblings eat first. My oldest daughter ‘s wiring just always ‘yielded’—and most of the time, happily so!
This bothered me. I wanted her to be more assertive and direct. I realized later that I wanted her to be me. But, what she needed was to be the best ‘her’ she could be. Time and again, my wife and I made adjustments for raising and training up our daughter according to her bent… not mine.
Today, our ‘lazy sucker’ is a confident, opinionated, and gracious young lady—who still will give others the benefit of the doubt—but who also has no problem standing in the gap for herself and others as well.
As part of God’s sense of humor, our middle daughter came into the world ‘looking for the buffet’ and was not afraid to jump to the front of the line. Oh how different our children can be. Needless to say, my other daughters’ bents have been very different from their older sister’s. And, yet, each of my girls are growing into wonderful, unique, faithful witnesses for Christ.
Now, remember Proverbs 20:11? —Well, take a look at the next verse (Proverbs 20:12)—It says:
“The hearing ear and the seeing eye, the Lord has made both of them.”
According to my math, there are two of each (ears and eyes), but only one mouth. Much of parenting is about listening and watching—long before we speak. All of this to say— Give your children a little room and they will unveil their bents for you—clearly and faithfully.
The final phrase… and when they are old they will not depart from it… always meant something so different than what I have come to understand about its meaning.
When I first encountered the phrase I thought ‘old’ meant the final years of a person’s life. But, the word used by the writer of Proverbs actually means ‘when the child begins to have hair on their chins’. And, although my daughter doesn’t have facial hair, the point is that ‘when they are old’ means when they are no longer a child living under the care of their parents. It is the timeframe when they truly move out from under the responsibility of their family and become more personally accountable for decisions, actions and outcomes.
Yes, today, that is the lesson I feel the hardest. I realize that, though it has not happened completely, my daughter is moving out from under my care for ‘her bent’. She now enters the stage where she will be both the one expanding her wings but also most accountable for ‘watching and listening’ for God’s guidance of His Will for her life.
And, needless to say, that is the real tension of my emotions in today’s transitions… I have helped train up my child from the very first expressions of her bent. I watched her extend her life and grow strong in His Word. But, now, I must pass off the primary responsibility for her… well… to her.
My role is changing. It is my job to watch and listen from even farther and farther back in her journey. But, I shouldn’t worry. Those first instincts of the Creator I saw at her birth are now fully rooted, and I know she will not depart from them.
Certainly, I can’t wait to see what God has in store for Sarai Grace’s life. She is ready for the stiff breeze. Sure, she will bend and sway, but she won’t break. I know what she is made of… I have been watching it her entire life. What a joy! What a privilege!
Be Salt and Light… You Matter!
1 Cor. 15: 58
Shane Stanford is a pastor, teacher and author committed to sharing the hope of Jesus Christ with the world.