A few days ago on January 31, the Church celebrated the memorial of St. John Bosco. I had known that he was a priest who had founded orphanages and schools, and also that he is a patron saint of educators, particularly educators of boys; but I had never read any of the saint's own words before encountering them in the Office of Readings for that day. Here is an excerpt:
It is easier to become angry than to restrain oneself, and to threaten a boy than to persuade him. Yes, indeed, it is more fitting to be persistent in punishing our own impatience and pride than to correct the boys. We must be firm but kind, and be patient with them...
See that no one finds you motivated by impetuosity or wilfulness. It is difficult to keep calm when administering punishment, but this must be done...Let us place ourselves in their service. Let us be ashamed to assume an attitude of superiority. Let us not rule over them except for the purpose of serving them better.
...[I]n correcting their mistakes we must lay aside all anger and restrain it so firmly that it is extinguished entirely.
There must be no hostility in our minds, no contempt in our eyes, no insult on our lips. We must use mercy for the present and have hope for the future....In serious matters it is better to beg God humbly than to send forth a flood of words that will only offend the listeners and have no effect on those who are guilty.
This all seemed so sensible that I wanted to know more. First I found this translation of an interview that a journalist did with Don Bosco in 1884:
Reporter: Don Bosco, could you comment on your educational philosophy and the methods you use in your schools that are so much admired? How do you manage to maintain discipline when dealing with so many boys?
Don Bosco: The Salesian way of educating the young is quite simple. Basically, I insist on letting boys be boys. Let them play and enjoy themselves as much as they want as long as God is not offended. But if I have a philosophy of education, it consists in discovering a boy’s best qualities and then exploiting them to his advantage. You must admit, sir, that any person is at his best when he is doing what he likes and does best. Children are the same. Promote their positive qualities and they will thrive. As for discipline—love and respect for the young is the answer. In the 46 years I have worked among children, never once have I had to resort to corporal punishment, which by the way is very much in vogue. And if I may say so, all those children who have come under my care have always continued to show me their love and respect.
I am very much glad to file this one away for mental reference. In the Catholic circles I move in, spanking and harsher forms of corporal punishment are not held up as "biblical" requirements of good parenting, the way you sometimes find them in evangelical Protestantism; but I do occasionally encounter it and have seen more than one parish priest advocate it from the pulpit.
Now, I am not saying I always live up to my ideals, but my ideal is never having to punish. And you know, I think if you go into parenting with the assumption that there's always a way to teach and discipline without punishing -- if you take the attitude that it's your responsibility to teach and discipline, and that punishment is a sort of last resort for when you've failed -- I think it's possible to reduce your reliance on it.
(The line between "punishment" and "teaching" is blurry, to be sure. For example, I don't think of requiring a child to pay restitution as a punishment, but others would. I am going for a "know it when I see it" sort of distinction here.)
Four kids in, and looking back, I have certainly learned humility in the "we don't punish" department, because I do fail, from time to time, to proactively teach and set expectations; or I get lazy, or irritable, and I go for the short-term solution. Nor am I above rapping a kid on the head to get his attention -- and if the child in question is a very physical, kinetic sort of child, I suspect that it may actually be an effective way to reach him. But my ideal hasn't changed. And Don Bosco has expressed it very well -- the idea is not to fail to punish, but to obviate the need for punishment.
So maybe in the future, I can mention when I am faced with the "The problem with kids today is that parents don't spank their kids anymore" attitude, I might mention my appreciation of St. John Bosco's wisdom.
Don Bosco once wrote a brief description of his philosophy of discipline, which he called "the Salesian Preventive Method" -- after St. Francis de Sales. (The Salesians were not founded by St. Francis, but by Don Bosco.) You can read it here. This is the introduction:
There are two systems which have been in use through all ages in the education of youth: the preventive and the repressive. The repressive system consists in making the law known to the subjects, and afterwards watching to discover the transgressors of these laws and inflicting, when necessary, the punishment deserved. According to this system, the words and looks of the superior must always be severe and even threatening, and he must avoid all familiarity with his dependents.
In order to give weight to his authority the Rector must rarely be found among his subjects, and as a rule only when it is a question of punishing or threatening. This system is easy, less troublesome, and especially suitable in the army and in general among adults and the judicious, who ought of themselves to know and remember what the law and its regulations demand.
Quite different from this and I might even say opposed to it, is the preventive system. It consists in making the laws and regulations of an institute known, and then watching carefully so that the pupils may at all times be under the vigilant eye of the Rector or the assistants, who like loving fathers can converse with them, take the lead in every movement and in a kindly way give advice and correction; in other words, this system places the pupils in the impossibility of committing faults.
This system is based entirely on reason and religion, and above all on kindness; therefore it excludes all violent punishment, and tries to do without even the slightest chastisement...
I may look a bit more closely at this later.