Janusz Korczak was an early pioneer of child welfare and psychology. As a young man in at the beginning of the twentieth century, Korczak had looked around and begun to ask why so many children were unhappy. There were vast numbers of slum children in Warsaw, neglected and unloved. Even the children of the rich seemed frustrated and resentful in spite of their material plenty. It was as if adults had forgotten what it was like to be a child. Korczak saw that adults had to learn to communicate with children and speak their language again. It was a lesson he understood from experience, enrolled by his anxious and overprotective parents into a school where the staff seemed to hate the pupils and beat them regularly to get results.
Korczak lived through a time of great social upheaval. He was born Henryk Goldszmit in 1879 into a Polish Jewish family in Warsaw, but only learned he was Jewish when at six years old he buried his canary in the courtyard and the janitor’s son pulled the cross out saying his canary was a Jewish bird. When Korczak was seventeen his father, a respected lawyer, died after a long internment in a mental asylum and Korczak had to combine medical studies with tutoring pupils to support his impoverished mother and sister. He also wrote books about Warsaw’s children. He attended the secret Polish university with its lectures on psychology, Polish culture and other forbidden subjects - for which he was twice imprisoned by the Russians who then ruled much of Poland. He was called up as a medical officer three times, in the Russian war against Japan, in the First World War and in the war of Polish independence from Russia.
As a young doctor in training, he wanted to heal not only children’s physical ailments, but also their souls and lives. Determined to make children’s lives happier, he set out on his first summer camp for slum children, armed with a wide reading of books on children, a bag full of games, good intentions and a carnation in his buttonhole. The week was chaotic. Korzcak found himself at odds with the boys, shouting at them to go to sleep and even resorting to threats. Ashamed and confused, he decided to ask the boys what they thought was going wrong. It soon became clear that his one-size- fits-all policy on childcare was missing the mark with for sleep, food, clothes sizes and what really interested the children. He realized that only by really listening to and knowing the children could he begin to devise creative ways to lead them towards who they were meant to be as people. Each child was a person to be respected in terms of their thoughts and feelings – that and a hefty dose of pre-planning for a group of 30 boys. The next summer, with lists, schedules and with a lot of effort made in getting to know each boy, he and the children had a wonderful summer in the country. He realized that childrearing was about knowledge from failed attempts, an on-going quest to find out what works for an individual. ‘I want everyone to know and love this state of “I do not know” when it comes to raising children – so full of life and dazzling surprises.’
For this reason, Korczak always put respecting and getting to know a child far higher than relying on books by child experts – although they were useful. ‘No book, no doctor can replace your own careful observation of a child.’ Mothers and fathers should trust their instinct about their own child, based on years of watching and getting to know who their child is. And above all, he saw childrearing as a relationship, not an exercise in control. The adult was charged with the responsibility of the child’s safety and happiness, but this meant accountability, not a free pass to lose one’s temper or be unfair for one’s own convenience. He loathed physical punishment, viewing it as wrong and completely ineffective. He understood that an adult has to be a grown up – ‘before you start laying down the law to children and bossing them about, make sure that you have brought up and educated the child inside yourself.’ And he saw no merit in treating childhood as if it were a mere preparation for the more important time of adulthood. ‘Children are people today, not people tomorrow. They have the right to their cup of happiness.’
He taught children and adults to treat each other with empathy. He was quite happy to point out to a child that he was busy working or reading or simply tired, and that the child could perhaps amuse themselves for a while – while always remaining close at hand and in sight for help and comfort if needed.
He taught social responsibility through the court of peers where children brought their grievances against each other and debated the rights and wrongs of each case, considering the feelings of others and so developing a sense of justice and fairness. Punishments were mostly written warnings.
He wrote tirelessly to help children and educate parents and teachers about what childhood feels like and how to love a child. He was one of the signiaturies on the first Children’s Bill of Rights in Geneva in 1927. He wrote books for children and adults, he taught, he broadcast, he set up a newspaper by and for children, he worked as a court advocate for teenagers and he set up children’s homes for Polish and for Jewish children. The gradual dismantling of cooperation between cultural groups as fascism swept Europe in the 1930’s broke his heart.
Korczak knew that children take comfort from the religion they were raised in and gave both Jewish and Christian children the chance to pray or go to services if they so wished. He wasn’t a practising Jew but had been brought up in the tenets of the religion, and though he did not follow a specific creed, he believed in a loving God and read widely from wisdom literature. His religion, he said, was the sacred duty to protect children. He believed that a child belongs to itself and that it is the duty of not only parents but the whole community to care for the children in their midst. He had no children of his own yet he was father to hundreds of children. Korczak firmly believed that children held the world together and that the basis of nationhood was not an ethnic or cultural group, but the decision of a people irrespective of creed or race to come together to care for their children. He understood that where nations decide not to care for the child then civilisation is on the verge of flying apart, which is precisely what happened when the Nazi Reich decided to murder thousands of children in 1942, in Warsaw, in Poland, and across Europe. There can be no greater contrast than this terrible decision compared to Korczak’s will to protect the rights and happiness of his children, even to the very end when he accompanied them from the Warsaw ghetto to the Treblinka death camp, even though offered a means of personal escape to freedom several times.
Korczak’s message is as pertinent today as it ever was, both in how we define a nation, and in how we raise children who are independent, happy, loved and loving. Perhaps the best observation about Korczak comes from a child in care who was given some of Korczak’s sayings to read: ‘I wish all parents could read Janusz Korczak, because then all children would be happier.’