“Train up a child” and Proverbs 22:6: What is “the way he should go”?

two paths diverge

Can you guarantee that your children will be followers of Jesus when they grow up? Putting the word “guarantee” with any claim about how children will turn out once they grow up seems foolish. But some well-meaning people have taught that there is a biblical guarantee. And it is found in Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (ESV).

While this verse sounds promising, it is premature to claim it as a promise that if you keep your kids in church and raise them up in a Christian environment, they will become followers of Jesus. The key problem with this interpretation is that it ignores the nature of proverbs as teaching tools. Accounting for the proverbial nature and the big aim of biblical wisdom literature, we can find a hopeful promise in Proverbs 22:6 about child-rearing, but one that falls far short of a guarantee that Christian parents will have Christian kids if they just try hard enough. Instead, the promise has to do with the way of wisdom.

Proverbs 22.6: Raise up a child in the way he should go – two main interpretations

There are two main ways I have heard this passage interpreted: (1) if you raise up your child in a Christian manner, they will remain Christian for life and (2) you should figure out the unique “way of your child” based on their aptitudes and raise them in such a way that teaches them how to thrive within their giftedness.

Appreciate how different these two understandings are.

The key to this passage is making sense of what “the way he should go/his way” means.

The Way he should go…

The Hebrew expression in question is literally “on the mouth of his road/way.” The images of a mouth and a way/road work together to give the following idea: a child put on the proper path at the beginning will keep walking that path, even when they are older. So, what is this way?

The way of wisdom.

As one commentator perceptively notes, in Proverbs there are only two ways: “the way of the wise and the righteous or the way of the fool and the wicked” (African Bible Commentary, 803). Only one of these is the way a child should go.

Proverbs and Wisdom

Proverbs is a book of wisdom. Wisdom in the bible is a far-ranging concept. It discusses practical skills associated with understanding and successful living. But we must never mistake Proverbs—or biblical wisdom—with modern day self-help tools. A couple OT scholars describe it well:

“Wisdom is not primarily interested in relating a list of theological truths, an account of history or a picture of the future. Wisdom is about the ways of things—how they are meant to exist and work.”

Craig G. Bartholomew and Ryan P. O’Dowd, Old Testament Wisdom Literature: A Theological Introduction, 23.

Wisdom is a way of life concerned with finding the grooves of the patterns God has woven into creation and following them.

The grounding conviction of biblical wisdom is that there is a God who has created a world that works in certain patterns. Wisdom is the pursuit of understanding these patterns of relationship: (1) how things in the world relate to each other, (2) how people relate to things in the world, (3) how people relate to each other, and (4) how God’s nature and purposes guide all these relationships into predictable patterns.

Don’t miss that God is central to biblical wisdom.

The way of wisdom

Since Proverbs is the book of biblical wisdom, we should understand Proverbs 22:6 as part of biblical wisdom. In a book concerned with passing on wisdom (Prov. 1:1-7), it is best to understand “the way he should go” to mean “the way of wisdom.”

This way of wisdom includes lots of practical insight into how the world works in general and is grounded in the conviction that God, the Creator, has made the world and people in it to work a certain way.

Aim for the right way, and you might just get it

Practically speaking, to say, “raise up your child in the way he should go” is to say “in the way of wisdom.” This proverb is less than a promise that if you take your kids to church and teach them the Bible they will become a Christian and more than saying you should figure out the unique “way of your child” based on their aptitudes and raise them in such a way that teaches them how to thrive within their giftedness.

As parents, we should respect the individuality of each child and temper our approaches to suit them. But their self-will will always lead them into the way of folly, that is, the way of sin. The biblical antidote to the way of folly is the way of wisdom.

As we teach our children the way of wisdom, we put them in the best place possible to see that wisdom flows from and towards God. We put them on the path that can lead them to Jesus. But there are no guarantees they will walk it.

You can be sure, though that if you don’t make the effort to show your children how to walk on the way of wisdom, they will probably never find it on their own.

Do not provoke your children to anger: the meaning of Ephesians 6:4, part 3

yelling child and frustrated father

After an agonizingly long interruption, we return to our four-part series reflecting on Ephesians 6:4 and the command for parents not to provoke their children to anger. For a refresher, see part 1 and part 2 (they are really important for what is coming). As promised, in this post we will give brief thought to the way psychology contributes to our understanding of the covenantal relationship between children and parents. I have so far maintained that provoking a child to anger is accomplished through treating the child wrong in the very area of life where they have just expectations to be treated right. Psychology and child development theories lend some insight into better answering the question, “What are the legitimate expectations children have of their parents which, if not met, should result in anger.”

Consider the following big idea: parents should play a major role in child developing “life skills” and “civilization skills.” This probably sounds pretty obvious. But since the Bible speaks a great deal about how parents should help their children develop “life skills” and “civilization skills” (see the book of Proverbs), why bother with psychology at all?

Two reasons: (1) you are already borrowing from psychology, whether you know it or not, so why not be intentional about it, and (2) a lot of the biblical guidance on parenting aims mainly at the goals rather than the details. But in the throes of parenting, we are often grappling with detail questions. To avoid provoking children to anger, we stand to benefit from knowledge about what is normal for children in terms of their abilities at any given stage of life. Here enters psychology and child development studies.

You already borrow from psychology

“Why are they behaving like such children?”

Someone once shared that phrase with me, and it has proven a useful way to keep my sanity as I watch my own kids with a sense of bewilderment. Embedded in that phrase is an assumption, which you probably so firmly agree with that it passes by without a second thought. Namely, that children are different from adults. Not just that they are miniature adults, but actually different. This assumption comes to us through psychology and/or child development studies.

“In the modern study of child development, we simply take for granted that children are fundamentally different from adults. Yet, for much of human history, kids were simply seen as smaller versions of their adult counterparts.”

Kendra Cherry, 7 Major Theories of Child Development

Even if you are making every effort to be stringently biblical in your parenting and avoid different “theories” developed by so-called “specialists” with dubious claims and motives, as like as not, the very way you think about children and the path of growing up is laid for you through modern child development theories that have become part of our collective unconscious as a culture. But, let us not naively rush in. The world of child development study is a mess.

Untangling the mess

There are many different theories of child development. I am not a specialist at any and have been impacted by several.

Check out a summary of 7 Major Theories of Child Development here. Many of them probably sound familiar to you.

Rather than look deeply into one theory, I want to suggest some broad ways that child development theories can help flesh out what a child can legitimately expect from their parents. Because, remember, the idea here is that Ephesians 6:4 works by assuming some sort of “covenantal” relationship between children and parents. As such, certain ways parents can treat their children violate the norms and justly result in an angry child. We can find some guidance regarding what children can justly expect from their parents by looking at the way God created children and the needs they have in the process of growing to maturity.

Given that:

  1. children are different from adults
  2. children are becoming adults
  3. parents (or primary-caregivers of any stripe) play an outsized role in this process

it follows that insight on how human beings in general make the transition from children to adults will help us flesh out our model of what children can and should expect to receive in some fashion from their parents.

Broadly speaking, children can expect that their parents give them “survival skills” and “civilization skills.”

Navigating life today

Within the parent-child relationship it is the parent, not the child, who primarily has the wisdom necessary for survival and thriving within society. Note that this balance changes more and more as a child gets older. A parent knows far more than their 3-year-old about survival and civilization; their 13-year-old knows more about certain aspects of survival and civilization than they do. But, on balance, wisdom about life in society really does increase with age, which leaves the average parent ahead of their child, at least for childhood, and likely in certain ways for life. “Within society” is important. Humans are social beings. Especially in modern society, our survival is more dependent on how we work together than with knowing direct survival skills.

An immense amount of parent-child friction comes from parents implementing guards against the impulses of their children. While frustrating for children, these guards play the key role of preparing the children for survival and life in society. These rules range the familiar gamut:

  • yes, you have to eat your vegetables and not just ice cream and candy (even if they taste good)
  • no, you can’t play in the street
  • no, just because watching videos online is fun doesn’t mean you get to do it all the time
  • yes, you need to come in and say hello to your grandma and grandpa and not just sulk in the car

Parents (or other types of primary care-givers) play an enormous role in the constant give-and-take of nitty-gritty decisions and debates about what is and isn’t good for their child at this exact point in time.

The list is endless, familiar, and both frustrating and difficult to navigate. In broad strokes, the friction emerges as parents implement rules that direct and constrain their children into certain patterns of living which enable their survival (health, well-being, etc.) and their ability to live in your culture (politeness rules, honor, shame, work ethic, etc.). No child comes pre-programmed with everything they need to live successfully. First, they can’t even stay alive. Second, the demands of your particular culture are enormous and require years of constant immersion and teaching before a child is adept enough to navigate them. Parents (or other types of primary care-givers) play an enormous role in the constant give-and-take of nitty-gritty decisions and debates about what is and isn’t good for their child at this exact point in time.

While we will consider many things Scripture does have to say about parenting in the next post, it does not answer for us whether 15 minutes or 2 hours or 6 hours of screen time is too much in a day. It does not tell us when our children should be entrusted with a phone, or a car, or money. It does not tell us what situations it is appropriate to raise your voice at your children. When you are to stick to your guns and when it is okay to change your mind. It doesn’t even tell us how often having ice cream is wise. There are no shortage of practical, in-the-trench parenting questions which Scripture does not answer.

Should you just follow your gut? That is often the case. After all, a big role of wisdom is allowing us to generate reasonable answers to novel problems. But studies of child (and human) development help flesh out the answers we can give. It really isn’t in your child’s best interest to let them watch 6 hours of daily screen time, be endlessly involved in social media, skip out of school, or forego eating broccoli because mealtime goes better when you just focus on dessert.

With novel problems emerging seemingly left and right calling for parents to try to navigate them—and help their kids navigate them—it seems like parents need to be experts at everything. Realistically, the best any of us parents can hope for is that our successes will not be overwhelmed by our failures. But, the biblical vision of parenting calls for parents to be deeply involved in setting boundaries, negotiating rights and privileges, and in all ways trying to guide their kids into wisdom. Getting a little help along the way can be helpful.

Adjusting aims and expectations

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits bequeathed to us through these sorts of child development studies is information that can help parents adjust their aims and expectations. Yes, in fact, you are going to have to say the same thing 200 more times before your child remembers it. Repetition is crucial to how they learn. And no, you are not imagining things, your teenager doesn’t hear you as well as they used to. In fact, their brain is shifting to be able to hear more people in general better, which means that you lose some of your privileged status in the corridors of their brain (sorry). Whether sinless children would have needed 200 repetitions or sinless teenagers ever would have missed your voice in a crowd or not, who knows (I suspect they still would have). But the kids we have today mostly follow predictable patterns of development with certain skills, abilities, and desires changing over time.

Knowing a few things about childhood development can help us parent with less frustration (at least theoretically). The biblical vision of parenting focus more on the long-game—what kind of person children should end up being. Adjusting our expectations and methods to better hit where our children are at developmentally as they age will help us get them there. After all, there are few things as frustrating in life as when someone is angry at you and you are not sure why. That happens often in childhood.

Moving on

Much more could be said and has been said elsewhere. A big part of parenting is the on-going negotiation of who is in control of what between parents and children. Since

  1. there is no perfect blueprint for any of the complicated questions involved
  2. all parties involved are sinners, and
  3. all parties involved are acting out of their own web of inscrutable and complex emotions, desires, assumptions, and beliefs about how the world does and ought to work

there will be endless opportunities for anger to rear up. Learning about child development from various psychological theories can clue us in to some of the inscrutable factors driving our children and give a little bit of practical guidance for the many specific questions parents must navigate with their kids on a daily basis.

Stay tuned for part 4, discussing some more specific biblical themes. After all, raising healthy, successful children who function well in society is wonderful, but it is short of the biblical mandate. God’s intentions for parents include other key ideas and children have an inherent right to receive them from their parents.

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Do not provoke your children to anger: the meaning of Ephesians 6.4, part 2

yelling child and frustrated father

Part 1 of this 4-part series provided the key orientation point: provoking a child to anger is a covenantal concept. It does not mean, “don’t do anything that will make your child get mad/angry/exasperated.” Wise and godly parenting will often result in children getting angry. Drawing from usage of the phrase “provoke to anger” in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament), we see the main context of usage is a right response of anger when justly held expectations in a relationship are violated.

Putting that into terms of “provoking a child to anger,” we can say that parents provoke a child to anger when they act towards their children in ways that violate the justly held relational expectations that children have of parents.

This is a good place to start, even if it’s really broad. It points us on a clear direction of inquiry. As parents, we need to give thought to what children can justly expect to receive from us in the parent/child relationship. Some of these expectations are clear. Children justly expect their parents to protect them (especially before they are grown up), and parents who use their greater power to hurt rather than guard their children are “provoking them to anger.” Children justly expect their parents to love them and parents who do not do so are “provoking them to anger.”

When we situate “provoke to anger” within its covenantal context from the Old Testament, one result within parent/child relationships is it appears to cover a range of negative responses from children, not just anger. A child physically abused by their parents may respond in anger or may respond in sullenness and fear. A neglected child may have angry outbursts or may withdraw from the world. In either case, the response is driven by parents violating the justly held relational expectations of the child and would seem to fit under the idea of “do provoke your child to anger.” Compare to the parallel passage in Colossians 3.21.

Just to be clear, when I am talking about what children justly expect from their parents, I am not talking about things they even know how to articulate. That will be age dependent. Rather, I am talking about things understood from Scripture and nature about the needs of a human being in the journey towards adulthood. A two-year old won’t know how to express in words that their parents are not emotionally engaging with them. But they clearly understand something they need is being withheld by their parents.

Moving forward: two categories of justly held expectations

Like most of the biblical passages in Scripture, guidance for parenting aims mainly at the goals rather than the details. As a generalization, much of the biblical material answers the question who we should be rather than the question, “What should the detailed decisions of our lives involve?” We still can step back, though, and distill some guidance on what children can expect from their parents within a sort of “covenantal” context of parent-child relationships.

In the next two posts, I want to take up these concerns from two different directions: (1) psychology and human development and (2) biblical teaching.

In part 3, I want to take up some key categories borrowed in from the world of psychology and human development. Of course, one could take the time to try to argue that all these categories are supportable from somewhere in Scripture, and they probably are, but I’m not going to do that. They are sufficiently broad and deep enough concepts to engage with some of the core experiences of growing to maturity as a human being. They are rooted in how our physiology and neurobiology function. In other words, they simply address some of the basic needs people have in order to grow up into normal, functioning adults.

In part 4 of this series, I will turn to some more specific biblical themes. After all, raising healthy, successful children is wonderful, but it is a far cry short of the biblical mandate. God’s intentions for parents include other key ideas and children have an inherent right to receive them from their parents.

Answering the core questions

The end goal of these two posts is to answer some of the question, “What sorts of things should parents be providing for their children?” In answering this question, we are also at the same time giving ourselves a framework for processing our children’s anger. Are they angry because of a failure to give them something they rightly expect, or are they angry because of sin in their own heart (which calls us to help them understand how to deal with sin in their own heart)?

As one writer puts it:

“Beginning with the first day of life outside the womb, every child is asking two core questions: “Am I loved?” and “Can I get my own way?” These two questions mark us throughout life, and the answers we receive set the course for how we live.”

Dan Allender, How Children Raise Parents: The Art of Listening to Your Family, 21

In answering these questions day by day for our children, they will undoubtedly get mad at us. Our concern is to tune in to the way God created human beings to function and the directions he gives us as parents so that we can get a better idea of when the anger of our child is their own sin and when the anger of our child is provoked by our sin towards them.

Do not provoke your children to anger: the meaning of Ephesians 6.4, part 1

yelling child and frustrated father

My kids get mad at me. A lot. I don’t say that as a point of pride, merely an observation of the status of life in our household. Now, I am certain there are many times when their anger is a legitimate and healthy response to something I have done that is not right. One could say that I (more often than I care to) provoke my children to anger.

And all this happens in a context where I hold dear the admonition of Scripture as found in Ephesian 6.4:

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

What does my children getting angry at me mean? Am I sinning? Should I be avoiding all things that result in them getting angry? What exactly is “provoking them to anger,” anyway?

Not all anger is the same

It is worth establishing some basic ground rules from our experience. From life in the trenches, we know that anger happens a lot. Even in “healthy” households. We will start with our experience and then move back and consider the ideal that Scripture gives.

A simple observation to begin with: not all anger is the same. In other words, sometimes my children’s’ anger towards me is righteous anger. They are angry because I have acted toward them in a way that is sinful. When someone violates the integrity of our person, anger is a natural response. Just like we as adults get angry when people wrong us, so too our children. At the beginning, let’s just be honest that sometimes our kids get mad at us because we “provoke them to anger” by sinful actions towards them.

But what about when they get mad at me for things like:

  • making them brush their teeth instead of watching a show;
  • telling them that they don’t get to have candy right now;
  • disciplining a child for hurting another child;
  • insisting that they talk to their parents in a respectful way and not listening to them when they whine;
  • making them apologize for wrong behavior;
  • etc.

Wisdom from life tells us that this sort of anger is not the same as the first. I can affirm that my children are, in fact, angry and that my actions have provoked them to anger. After all, if I just let them watch the show there would be no anger right now. And yet, life experience and wisdom also tell us that these sorts of parental actions are necessary. When parents do not take it upon themselves to impose wise choices upon their children, the result is a disaster of a child that all too often turns into a disaster of an adult.

As I write this my children are still young, and it is easier to see that their anger is not justified (assuming that I am enforcing wise choices upon them in a loving way, which is not always the case). What happens as children get older? How do we understand when our actions are “provoking a teenager to anger,” for instance?

While I don’t have a definitive answer for the complexities of being a sinful parent raising sinful children, I can point us to a deeper understanding of what this passage in Ephesians 6 is saying. And the key here is a covenantal context.

Provoking to anger in covenantal context

To begin, let’s revisit Ephesians 6.4. Here is a smattering of ways it is translated:

  • “You fathers, don’t provoke your children to wrath, but nurture them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (WEB)
  • “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” (NIV)
  • “Fathers, don’t frustrate your children with no-win scenarios. Take them by the hand and lead them in the way of the Master.” (MSG)
  • “Fathers, don’t stir up anger in your children, but bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” (HCSB)
  • “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (ESV)

There is clear consensus on the last half of the verse: train and instruct. The first half of the verse describes something negative, with notions of wrath, exasperation, and anger. But what does that mean in real life?

“Fathers” or “parents”?

First, just note that the command to “fathers” is best understood today as a command to parents. We could delve into language and culture details as to why that is the case (and if you want some of that, just ask me!), but just know that it encompasses parents in general.

I would advocate translating this passage something like: “Parents—and especially you, fathers—do not provoke your children to anger.” This accounts for the fact that the text is primarily directed at men within its original context while also acknowledging the realities of the modern family, and the myriad of different authority structures which are present therein. From single-parent homes to homes with present but absentee fathers, etc. The point of the passage addresses a reality that parents are able to parent in such a way that they exasperate their children.

Covenantal context

To understand what “provoke to anger” refers to, we have to consider just what Paul is doing in this brief exchange. Starting from Ephesians 5.21, Paul is discussing the normal relationships of human life in his day in terms of gospel submission: wife and husband, child and parent, and slave and master.

Let’s look at Ephesians 6.1-4 a little closer:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), 3 “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” 4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

In this passage Paul cites directly from the 10 commandments regarding how children are to relate to their parents (Exodus 20.12). In v. 4, he alludes to Deuteronomy 6—the Shema and the immediately following verses—about the responsibility of parents to teach the words of the covenant to their children. In both parts of the child/parent relationship, then, the expectations laid out are grounded in terms of God’s covenant. That is, they are covenantal.

Said differently, Paul is not giving parenting advice or tips about how to deal with kids or parents like you would find in the self-help section. Instead, he is unpacking how the truth of God being a covenant God who reaches out to us in the gospel of Jesus Christ provides a framework for being a child or being a parent. While this passage is detail-sparse in terms of what boots-on-the-ground parenting looks like, it is profound in giving us a guiding vision.

But there is more we can say than just that it is a guiding vision.

Parenting and covenants

Paul shows us that being a child and being a parent is framed within God’s covenant. We might say that there is an implicit covenant between child and parent where each party has obligations to the other. When each party fulfills those obligations, the result is harmonious and mutually beneficial.

Since I have mentioned “covenant” a few times, it is worth defining. Covenants are formal relationships characterized by faithfulness and loyalty in love. There is clearly no “formal” covenant in families. However, in the biblical view, family is strongly covenantal. There is a stronger and a weaker party (the parents and children, respectively), with obligations placed upon each party. The stronger—parents—is to act for the benefit of the children in areas like provision, wise instruction, discipline, and so forth. The primary response of the weaker party—the child/children—is respectful obedience. For a good description of family dynamics as portrayed in the OT and NT, see God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation, 2nd ed., chapters 5-6).

Setting aside the fact that our relationships with children are often full of disharmony and antagonism (thank you sin), the aim is for harmony and mutual benefit. This view stands behind Psalm 127.4-6:

Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, / the fruit of the womb a reward. / Like arrows in the hand of a warrior / are the children of one’s youth. / Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! / He shall not be put to shame / when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.

This passage shows an ideal: harmonious and mutually beneficial relationships between the parents and kids. No one counts it as a blessing when parents and children are characterized by mutual antagonism, violence, distrust, or other negative relational markers. But when all is well, both parents and children are blessed from the covenantal relationship of the family.

Provoking to anger is a covenant relationship phrase

Why am I bothering to talk about covenants? Well, it turns out that “provoke to anger” is used almost exclusively in covenant contexts in the Septuagint.

The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament which is freely used, alluded to, and cited in the NT.

The word translated variously as “provoke to anger, etc.” (it’s παροργίζω, if you want to know) is used 57 times in the Septuagint. Far and away the most common context is that the Israelites provoke the Lord to wrath by their sin. It is also used of general relational violations. We might summarize its dominant usage as follows: being “provoked to anger” is a result of the other party in the covenant failing to live up to the terms of the covenant.

Consider a concrete example. God, the covenant maker, tells the Israelites, “You shall have no other gods before me.” When the Israelites worship other gods, what happens? God is provoked to anger. Why? Because they are violating the terms of the covenant. The expected behavior of the covenant partner is not kept (the Israelites are worshipping other gods). The result is that God is “provoked to anger.”

From the side of the people of Israel, if they keep the covenant faithfully, they expect God’s blessing. If God were to withhold his blessing from them, even when they were being faithful, then God would be “provoking them to anger.” Of course, this doesn’t happen. But it is illustrative. In a covenant, both parties have responsibilities towards each other. The bulk of the responsibilities rest on the stronger party.

This I think is the heart of “provoking to anger:” it has to do with violation of justly held expectations and rights. God is angry with the people because they have broken the covenant terms. Provoking to anger is accomplished through treating the other party wrong in the very arenas of life where they have just expectations to be treated right.

And one more thing to note. The core purpose behind the covenant is to facilitate a relationship between parties characterized by faithfulness and loyalty in love.[1]

Non-provoking parenting

This post is already too long, but I want to briefly sketch out where we are going in the next post. If being a parent is like part of a covenant, then we are to understand “provoking to anger” in a specific sense. Parents “provoke their children to anger” not whenever they do something that their kids get mad about, but when parents violate the terms of the parent/child “covenant.” Making your child finish their homework before going out with their friends may make them get mad, but, if done rightly, falls within the purview of parents teaching their children the wisdom necessary to thrive in this world. That is not provoking your child to anger in the sense of Ephesians 6.4.

With all the anger responses which parents so regularly receive from children, though, what can guide where we aim in thinking about our relationship with our children. After all, sinful parents raising sinful kids means there are lots of opportunities for things to get gummed up. What should we aim at?

To that, we will turn in the next post.

[1] Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants: A Concise Biblical Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), 54.

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