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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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The educational philosophy of St John Bosco

Don Bosco, founder of the worldwide Salesian educational brotherhood, sends us powerful messages for today's practice from his work with troubled kids 150 years ago ...

Heroes and pioneers: Kindness

Here he introduces his "preventive method" of working with youth ...

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 (the director or principal of a school) must always be severe and even threatening, and he must avoid all familiarity with his dependents.

In order to give weight to his authority he must rarely be found among his subjects, and as a rule only when it is a question of punishing or menacing. 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 Principal or the assistant teachers, 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. This system seems preferable for the following reasons:

  1. Being forewarned the pupil does not lose courage on account of the faults he has committed, as is the case when they are brought to the notice of the superior. Nor does he resent the correction he receives or the punishment threatened or inflicted, because it is always accompanied by a friendly preventive warning, which appeals to his reason, and generally enlists his accord, so that he sees the necessity of the chastisement and almost desires it.
  2. The primary reason for this system is the thoughtlessness of the young, who in one moment forget the rules of discipline and the penalties for their infringement. Consequently, a child often becomes culpable and deserving of punishment, which he had not even thought about, and which he had quite forgotten when heedlessly committing the fault he would certainly have avoided, had a friendly voice warned him.
  3. The repressive system may stop a disorder, but can hardly make the offenders better. Experience teaches that the young do not easily forget the punishments they have received, and for the most part foster bitter feelings. along with the desire to throw off the yoke and even to seek revenge. They may sometimes appear to be quite unaffected but anyone that follows them as they grow up knows that the reminiscences of youth are terrible, and some have even been known in later years to have had recourse to brutal vengeance for chastisements they had justly deserved during the course of their education. In the preventive system, on the contrary, the pupil becomes a friend, and the assistant, a benefactor who advises him, has his good at heart, and wishes to spare him vexation, punishment, and perhaps dishonour.
  4. By the preventive system pupils acquire a better understanding, so that an educator can always speak to them in the language of the heart, not only during the time of their education but even afterwards. Having once succeeded in gaining the confidence of his pupils he can subsequently exercise a great influence over them, and counsel them, advise and even correct them, whatever position they may occupy in the world later on.

For these and many other reasons it seems that the preventive system should be preferred to the repressive.


John Morrison* writes: The third aspect of Don Bosco's preventive system (the others being "reason" and "religion") was "kindness". Charity or kindness was used, by Bosco, as a pedagogical principle which connected the educational end, the salvation of souls, with the pedagogical methods centred in confidence, love, and friendship. Charity, which was both reasonable and kind, produced an educational environment between educator and educand based on filial and brotherly relationships. Kindness was therefore a necessary driving force in Bosco's pedagogy. Disciplinary problems were solved in love, educational reasons for doing things were motivated in terms of Christian kindness.

Bosco had learned, through experience, that kindness, tempered with patience, was an attractive trait, whereas rudeness, impatience, annoyance, and hypersensitiveness, were not. He realised, too, that to show equanimity to others, to have them interested in what was being said or done, one had to be friendly, kind, and charitable towards people. To speak unkindly about anyone, Bosco believed, was not only uncharitable but left a bad impression on "persons endowed with at least a minimum of good judgement." And his educative mission depended, to a large extent, on his being able to attract both teachers and students to his ways. Hence, Bosco became aware, through his early ministry, of the magnetism of friendliness generated by kindness. The kindness he had shown to the inmates of the Turin gaols, their friendly responses towards him, together with the influence he knew he exercised over them, and the co-operation he received from them, convinced him of the necessity for having kindness as a basic characteristic of his preventive system.

In the early days of his educational work at Valdocco, it was largely his personal kindness which drew the boys to him." When he had occasion to be absent from the Oratory, he was apprehensive about how the other teachers would treat the boys. In a letter written on 31st August, 1846, for instance, to Father Borel who was running the school in Bosco's absence, the latter showed some apprehension:

"I am glad that Father Trivero is giving you a hand there; but tell him to take care lest he be too strict with the boys; I know that some of them resent that. Please see to it that the oil of charity renders all things agreeable at the Oratory."

Don Bosco's idea of kindness, however, was based on personal directness, not maudlin sentimentality. He once said: "If a priest wants to do good, then he must combine charity with candid frankness." It was his direct, amicable approach with adults that gained recruits for his schools.

His friendly and kindly attitude to people became well known. His kindliness towards rough coachmen" who housed their coaches next door to the Oratory was the same as he exhibited towards detractors who shouted abuse over the Oratory walls. Despite rebuffs, insults, and humiliations, he believed in maintaining a friendly disposition. He was convinced that kindness, free from disparagement, would in the final analysis gain the ends he desired: the education of youth, and the salvation of souls.

Kindness and friendliness were to be used, too, as tools for his educative job. An instance of this was when he welcomed back to his Oratory a group of teachers who had deserted him, because he was "ever mindful of the valuable service that they had rendered him and the Oratory as catechists." They had served him before, what they had done was past, and now, since he had extended the hand of friendship to them again, they would continue to serve him. But what was more important for Bosco was that his educational work was able to go on. Behind his affability there was always a motive: the continuation of his educative mission.

Acts of charity among the boys at the Oratories were encouraged by the pedagogist. John Villa, a visitor to the Oratory in the 1850's, testified that he heard Bosco declare: "that while the society aimed at doing good to others, the members should first aim at improving themselves." With this in mind, Bosco trained the boys in citizenship and practical Christianity by having them undertake charitable works in the poorer districts of Turin.


In 1883, in a circular written by Don Bosco and sent out to Salesian schools, the pedagogist set down suggestions about punishing which were as follows:

Before punishing ascertain all the facts.
Be sure that the guilty one knows why he is being punished.
Never turn a pupil out of the classroom. In more serious cases have the lad accompanied to the principal.
Justice must always be used when punishing.
Never make use of general punishments.
Never make use of corporal punishments.
Punishments must be few and never prolonged.
Written punishments are generally to be discouraged.
Never make use of the reflection room, where the pupil remains in idleness.
Always inspire the hope of pardon.

* Morrison, John (1976). The Educational Philosophy of St John Bosco. Privately published , Sydney, Australia.

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