Advice on Punishment from St. John Bosco

Carlo Felice Deasti, Don Bosco, Torino, 1887

Part of a healthy, well-ordered love is correction of the sinner. Admonishing the sinner is one of the spiritual works of mercy. St. Thomas numbers fraternal correction among the works of charity.

Getting correction right is often difficult. Too often our ego gets in the way or our anger taints this necessary work.

Parents have the particular responsibility of punishing their children. To be sure, punishment should come after teaching and necessary warnings and admonishments.

The purpose of punishing youngsters is to teach them. It is to help them to experience, in a small way, the consequences of bad choices so that they do not suffer far worse repercussions and have to “learn the hard way” in the future. Thus, punishment is an act of mercy and love.

Just as with correction, in punishing children there is the danger that parents can intermix their own anger, ego, or desire to control.

This week we celebrated the Feast of St. John (Don) Bosco. For his feast, we read a letter in which he warned of punishments tainted with anger and offered advice and caution for those (such as parents) who undertake the necessary but “dangerous” act of punishing children. Here are some excerpts from his advice to his fellow Salesians:

My sons, in my long experience very often I had to be convinced of this great truth: [That] it is easier to become angry than to restrain oneself, and to threaten a boy than to persuade him…. We must be firm but kind, and be patient with them.

I give you as a model the charity of Paul which he showed to his new converts. They often reduced him to tears and entreaties when he found them lacking docility and even opposing his loving efforts.

This was the method that Jesus used with the apostles. He put up with their ignorance and roughness and even their infidelity. He treated sinners with a kindness and affection that caused some to be shocked, others to be scandalized, and still others to hope for God’s mercy. And so, he bade us to be gentle and humble of heart.

It is difficult to keep calm when administering punishment, but this must be done if we are to keep ourselves from showing off our authority or spilling out our anger. See that no one finds you motivated by impetuosity or willfulness.

… Let us not rule over them except for the purpose of serving them better. 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, as is fitting for true fathers who are eager for real correction and improvement.

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 (Epistolario, Torino, 1959, 4, 201-203).

Far be it from me to add to the words of this saint except to recall that truth and charity must work together. Without love, the truth can bludgeon and thereby wound both charity and truth. But without truth, love can be too soft and permissive. It can spoil and consign others to unloving and lonely experiences such as selfishness, addiction, and error.

Punishment has its place, but special care must be taken to avoid venting our anger lest we punish too severely and/or humiliate the one who needs our care. When this happens, punishment, which is meant to be an act of love, becomes a countersign of love. May love be at the root of any punishment. Correct with care!

One Reply to “Advice on Punishment from St. John Bosco”

  1. Telling people what they need to hear, instead of what they want to hear is a difficult task and, at times, can be scary.
    And, for the listener to desire what what they need to hear is probably even much more difficult. I didn’t learn this until past middle age and sometimes I speculate on how much better my life could have been if I’d learned it earlier but, thank God that I learned it in time.

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