I face life stories. If the teacher does not know them, they can really mess them up.
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The pedagogy of tenderness sounds nice. What is it?

– Oh, I don't like definitions. They are like dogmas – they isolate.

You are a priest and you don't like dogmas?

– I hate them. I remember preparing a group of children from Chosica, a town 40 km from Lima, for their first communion. I had just got back from Europe, where I had studied theology, it was 1965. To those who were to hear their confessions, I made it a condition that no one should ask the children anything, and the children would not recite their mistakes, those deeds which are commonly referred to as "sins". The children would only say, "Father, give me God's forgiveness and mercy". Only one priest agreed to hear confessions this way. Priests are used to working with guilt, and society has taken it from them.

What do you mean by that?

– How is it possible that a 2,000-year-old institution is still holding up today? The answer is simple, it rules by fear. Priests have been instilling guilt for centuries, they make you feel guilty, cursed, condemned. They say, if you do that or don't do something else, you will fall into the devil's hands, and if you do this, heaven awaits you. This dialectic of reward and punishment is ubiquitous. I have even met people who see the current pandemic as a punishment prophesied in the Old Testament.

In this paradigm, which has also permeated education, you act in fear of God. Fear of punishment, tell me, what kind of a motivation is that anyway? It works when it comes to control. But it is toxic, both to adults and children. It destroys the relationships between them.

That sounds a little like Jesper Juul's pedagogy message. Have you read it?

– No. What does he say?

That children should be taken seriously, not as some inferior beings.

– That is interesting, sometimes in history, some ideas appear in the world independently of each other at the same time. It was only years after I started using the term "pedagogy of tenderness" that I learned about a book written by Colombian psychiatrist Juan Carlos Restrepo entitled "The Right to Sensitivity” and about the work of Cuban educator Lidia Turner Martí, who also uses this term.

When did you come up with this expression?

– In the early '90s. In Peru, the civil war had been going on for ten years, and I was to hold workshops for teachers from different parts of the country at the Institute of Education for Human Rights and Peace. I was torn, what was I supposed to tell people whose colleagues had been killed? Who had watched their grandparents die? I decided I would tell them what that conflict was denying, that we are brothers and sisters and about the possibility of creating a relationship between us and the rest of society based on tenderness.

The pedagogy of tenderness cannot be reduced to technical instruments. A pedagogue is a companion, someone who stands by the children and keeps them company as they grow up. The purpose of the pedagogy of tenderness, if any, is to make children learn to make decisions in life on the basis of what they feel and who they are, and not just on the basis of rigid rules.

Without enforcing discipline? In the educational and clerical world, that sounds a little bit like heresy.

– But I am a heretic! In 1975, I was kicked out of the church because of a book I published. I will not go into those theological disputes, but my superiors considered the beliefs contained in them to be heresy. I still feel like a priest. I believe in Jesus, but not in the Church. Luckily, Jesus was also a heretic.

The word "discipline" is a little out of fashion these days, but many parents and teachers expect obedience from children and students.

– I have the impression that the most important assumption that guides schools is that you can only learn something if there is discipline. In my friend's class, the students were quiet as mice. It seemed strange to me as they were always making noise when they were with me. For him and for many people, discipline served and still serves to reproduce the prison model. We often achieve this effect, when teachers watch, children do what they expect them to do and when they look away, they do something completely different.

There is no better way for children to make an effort and to give something of themselves than to let them know that they are doing it because of a friendship relationship instead of out of fear.

Taking care of this friendship between an adult and a child is the best method of education?

– But it does not mean it will always work. Fourteen years ago, I was near a market in Ciudad de Dios, a rather dangerous neighbourhood in Lima. It was 11 o'clock at night, I was on my way to the bus, and suddenly I was surrounded by a group of boys. One of them pushed me and ripped out my wallet, and I fell on a pile of rocks. I got up with one stone in my hand to throw it at the boy who robbed me. He had already walked about 10 meters away. When he turned around, I saw that it was Jaime, a boy who had once been at the school for working children and teenagers created by MANTHOC [the Movement of the Working Youth, Children of the Christian Working Class], where I worked. We called him Gillette as he always had a razor blade with him, ready for an assault. But we accepted him for who he was. I remembered him, and he remembered me, and we said to each other with our eyes: "We are friends". I am sure he came out of it agitated, even though he had not changed. About three years later, he was killed by cops and he was a member of a gang.

We do not always succeed. But at least we are leaving a good trail.

Nice and true. But I am sure you can also give me a positive example.

– One of the teachers confided in me about some trouble she had. She had a charismatic boy in her group, everyone was looking up to him but he was a drug dealer. She asked me, what should I do?

Report it to the authorities, the principal, the police?

– What would that do to the boy? Would it make a difference in the long term? The teacher decided to talk to him, once, twice, and then once again. The boy grew in a family where everyone was a dealer, it is a common problem in Lima. They finally made a pact that he would not sell drugs at school. Did the teacher win? Did she lose? In my opinion, she succeeded, the most important thing is that the other children are safe, and these two have not lost their relationship. Every time the boy has a problem, he goes to that teacher. Of course, he did not change everything in his life, but could he have? He did something very important, he took responsibility for his actions. This is more important than arousing a feeling of guilt.

So why is this feeling of guilt not good?

– Because what does it say? Every month I go to a maximum security prison to visit a 79-year-old man. I met him when he was 13 years old and was a school journalist at the Marianist school in the port of Callao, I was teaching at the Don Bosco college. Later, he was the commander of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, for which he has been in prison for the last 28 years.

I once asked him if he wanted the government to grant him amnesty, and he said, "There should be no amnesty until we ask people for forgiveness". That seems fundamental to me. Instead of asking the prisoner if he regrets his actions, it is better to ask, "Do you feel responsible?" I do not think any of our actions are private to the point. We are social beings, and everything we do has social consequences, both good and bad.

Children can take care of themselves and can become actors of social change. I object to their patronising treatment, and I believe that they have the same civil rights as adults.

In 2007, you launched a campaign in INFANT to eliminate corporal punishment, which was then allowed in Peru. The children won.

– Yes, but it still took up to eight years! For those who started collecting signatures at school at the age of eight, the second half of their lives had already passed.

For children, this is not only a success, but also an amazing lesson that they have an impact. Women were particularly involved in the campaign, as they knew exactly what it was like to live in a society based on power, patriarchy and macho domination.

The Children to the Rescue Campaign, which INFANT supported in Belén, illustrates this beautifully. Can you share the story with us?

– Belén is the poorest part of Iquitos, a city deep in the Amazon. It has 400,000 inhabitants, no road leads there. Belén is a special place. For six months the district is flooded with river water, the homes of 60,000 residents stand on stilts. When we started the project, we asked the children to draw what they were afraid of. Many depicted drowning of young children because they knew a neighbour whose child had drowned or they had lost siblings in this way. We asked them what we could do to prevent such accidents. Older children said: "We could save them, we can swim". So we asked them: "How will you know where the little ones you have to watch out for live?" The children said that they would mark those houses with special flags. The organisation supported them in obtaining materials, conducted rescue courses, first aid courses and swimming courses.

The initiative came from the children, and we supported them in its implementation. In swimming lessons, the older ones teach the younger ones. No one has drowned in years. I don't think children are our future at all.


– Children are our present. They have an amazing imagination, they can come up with solutions to current problems that adults cannot think of. All you have to do is listen to them and enable them to do their work. Listening is an indication of a certain approach. Let me say more, just listening is not enough, we still need to make sure that we understand what we have heard, because words often impoverish our experiences and carry other meanings for us.

Did your parents listen to you?

– My mother did. I did not know my father as he died when I was 10 months old, due to bronchial pneumonia. There was no penicillin back then. My mother was 24 at the time, and she was pregnant for the third time with my younger sister, who was born seven months after my father died. 

Your mother raised her children to be decent people and even provided them with a great education. You went to school in the best district of Lima.

– We were middle class, we lived well, but not glamorously. My mother was a fashion designer, she designed clothes, then she worked in an office. She has always been brave. She married my father, even though her parents thought he was a bad match. One day, they just showed up at the house with a marriage certificate. She was 19 at the time.

She never threatened me with her finger, never made excuses. Usually when I went outside to play, I said I would be home by 8:00, and of course I was late. When I gently put the key in, suddenly the door opened, and there was my mother. Not once did she yell, "What are you doing, why are you late again?" She looked at me and sometimes she just spoke with her eyes; "What a pity you did not keep your word, you did not respect yourself".

She always listened to me, only spoke her mind. She let me leave home when I was 14.

How so? I mean, you were a minor.

– Please remember that 70 years ago being 14 meant something different than today. Besides, even today in Peru, children from the age of 14 can work legally. My mother and I sat on the bed and I told her I wanted to join the seminary. And my Mum asked, "Have you thought this through? Is that your decision?" "Yes, it is my decision," I answered. "Well, then, I support you," she said. Her family attacked her, "You're a fool, the only son who could support you in your old age is to be a priest". She did not care about that.

You started teaching when you were 23. That was 1958. It was then that you met a boy who opened your eyes.

– I worked at a Salesian school in the Breña district of Lima. The boy was always late, and I have always let him in. The others started saying he was my favourite, since I did not pay attention to him. The next time he was late, I asked him to stay outside. I went out and I asked, "Why are you late?" And he said, "Bend over". He was young, he was nine years old. I leaned over, and he says, "I get up every morning at 4 a.m., I go to the 22nd kilometre to the countryside to buy products from the farmers that my mother needs for the dishes in the small canteen she runs. I go home, I have breakfast, and then I go to school".

I looked at his notebook. There was pasta glued to it. It turned out he fell asleep in the evening while he was eating dinner and doing his homework. That was when I realised that children sometimes live in conditions that teachers cannot imagine. They are worried about their education, not about what they do, how they live or what relationship they have with their parents. This was a discovery for me, in class, I do not face students, I face life stories. If the teacher does not know them, they can really mess them up. They may be too demanding, they may even destroy the child.

I realised that I teach working children, and how they help their parents does not become part of their résumé.

How many children work in Peru?

– Estimates are very mixed, 4 million children were still mentioned in 2008, including those under the age of 14. Later, they started counting from the age of 15 and the statistics dropped to close to a million, but that only means that the rest of them work illegally.

For more than 20 years you have co-run a school for working children in Lima. What did you teach them?

– Everything! Spanish, mathematics, civic education and history. But the most important thing was philosophy.

Did you teach philosophy to kids who spend all day at work?

– Surprised? Instead of religion that was commonly taught in schools, we took philosophy classes. We asked the children, "How do you understand life?" "What is important to you?" We also asked what they can do, what they would like to learn, and we tried to make it possible for them to learn it.

We also tried to create the conditions for Amorevolezza to take place.


– It is hard to translate. It is one of Don Bosco's pedagogical principles. Young people are not supposed to know that we love them, but they are supposed to feel loved. That is the difference, right? Do you feel loved by your teachers? Do you feel loved by your parents? Just saying "I love you" will not do it.

You are constantly calling for affection to be shown to children.

– Yes, but beware, there is no place, no deposit of tenderness, to be reached and distributed. Tenderness manifests itself not only in hugs or good words, but also in humour.

Respect for another human being is crucial for tenderness to exist. May teachers respect children even if they do not share their opinions, and may the children respect teachers even if they do not understand everything they are asked to do.

It is only with that kind of respect that there is a problem today.

What kind of problem?

– We live in an individualistic society where the phrase "I respect you" often means, “I am not questioning anything you say". We respect each other, we do not judge each other's actions or each other's words, and we all live in our own worlds. The true meaning of respect is completely different, to respect means to value, to try to understand, even if I criticise what you think and how you act.

We need the new generation to grow up with a sense that other people are important too.

Recently, in connection with the pandemic, as part of INFANT's activities, we handed out food packages to families from the poor district of Villa María del Triunfo in the south of Lima. The neighbourhood is quite high up in the mountains, only a gravel path leads to it. When one of the teachers called eight-year-old Samir, if there was anything else they needed, he said, "No, we have already received the package. It would be better to organise transport for packages for those who live even higher up". I wish every one of us had that kind of tenderness.

Alejandro Cussiánovich - pedagogue, educator and pastor from Peru, has been engaged in activities for the benefit of working children for over half a century. Member of the Peruvian Institute for Education in Human Rights and Peace (IPEDEEA), lecturer at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Lima, co-founder of the Institute for Education of Children and Teenagers at Work (INFANT), with whom the Kulczyk Foundation has been cooperating since 2019. More about INFANT's cooperation with the Kulczyk Foundation and information on how to support the organisation's activities can be found at kulczykfoundation.org.pl

“Tenderness and freedom. Let's build balanced relationships” is a campaign run by Kulczyk Foundation along with “Wysokie Obcasy” and “Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation”.

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