Let children enjoy their childhood

The government should
heed the words of children’s rights pioneer Dr Janusz Korczak.

Dr Janusz Korczak
refused many offers to save himself and leave the Warsaw Ghetto. Instead, in
1942, he led 200 orphans onto the train that would take them all to their
deaths in the gas chambers of Treblinka. According to psychotherapist Sandra
Joseph, who has researched Korczak’s life, his aim was to ensure that the
children would retain some faith in human goodness.

Joseph is the editor of
A Voice for the Child: the Inspirational Words of Janusz Korczak
. Writing
in the current issue of Young Minds magazine, she describes a hugely
impressive individual. He was the founder of a children’s newspaper, The
Little Review
, and the original source of ideas for what subsequently
became the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Born in Poland in
1879, Korczak was a paediatrician and a renowned writer of fiction. He was the
director of two orphanages, and lived in the attic of one, devoting a day a
week to abandoned street children. Each was run on progressive lines. His
children’s court was presided over by a child judge, and adults and children
were treated as equals. Korczak envisaged that within 50 years each school
would have a court, teaching respect for the law and the importance of human

Joseph recounts how
he gave a lecture to medical students in Warsaw. He brought a four-year-old boy
from his orphanage and, speaking softly so as not to further alarm him, he
showed his students the boy’s heart in the X-ray laboratory.

“Don’t ever forget
this sight,” he instructed. “How wildly a child’s heart beats when he is
frightened – and this it does even more when reacting to an adult’s anger, not
to mention when he fears being punished.”

One student said: “We
did not need to be told any more – everybody will remember that lecture

Korczak believed that
children should be appreciated for who they are, not what they will become. In
these competitive times – accentuated by Estelle Morris, the education
secretary, who announced last week yet more divisions within the education
system to enlarge the gap between success and failure – Korczak’s thinking and
the value he placed on widening democracy to include the young deserve to reach
a much wider audience in the UK.

So it is good news
that The Institute of Education is to host a conference on this extraordinary
man next March.

– For information on
the conference, contact info@ioe.ac.uk

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