During my first pregnancy, I read dozens of parenting books, watched “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” at least twice and burned through five seasons of the BBC television series “Call the Midwife.” Had I been introduced to the writing of Janusz Korczak earlier, I may have saved myself countless hours. He recognized that parents have inherent knowledge concerning child rearing and need to trust their natural abilities.
Henryk Goldszmit was born to a Jewish family in Warsaw in July 1878. He is better known by his pen name Janusz Korczak. Korczak dreamed of a world where there were neither poor nor hungry children. He was passionate about helping children in need. He studied medicine and worked at a hospital for Jewish children. When he wasn’t practicing medicine, he was writing about education and orphanages. He accepted an invitation to be the director of an orphanage for Jewish children that opened in 1912.
Korczak helped design the orphanage to be a place where children could thrive. Here the children self-governed by electing a parliament that created its own rules, which even the staff had to follow. A children’s court decided on punishments if rules were broken. “Forgiveness” was a cardinal rule and Korczak taught that making a mistake was actually a learning opportunity. Life in the orphanage wasn’t just about rules and governance. Korczak recognized the importance of, and ensured there was plenty of time for, learning skills, playing games, and reading.
During the Second World War, the Nazis deported Jews to a walled ghetto. Korczak and the children had to move to the ghetto but he continued to ensure the children were loved and did whatever he could to provide for their needs. Despite offers to escape from the ghetto, Korczak refused to abandon the children. In August 1942, Korczak was ordered to take his children to the train station from where they were sent to the Treblinka extermination camp. While he couldn’t save himself or his children from death at the camp, his legacy survives in a lifetime of nurturing and empowering children.
I was introduced to Janusz Korczak’s writing through PJ Library’s Parents Book Choice in June 2016. I read Loving Every Child, Wisdom for Parents in one sitting. I was most inspired by the following excerpts.
“I want everyone to understand that no book and no doctor is a substitute for one’s own sensitive contemplation and careful observations.”
This boosts my confidence in my own ability to raise my children and helps me realize that I am an expert when it comes to my children’s needs. By no means is this meant to be dismissive of a doctor’s advice; Korczak was himself a doctor. It is a reminder to be critical of sources and certain “expert” opinions.
“When is the proper time for a child to start walking? When she does. When should her teeth start cutting? When they do. How many hours should a baby sleep? As long as she needs to.”
Some parenting books fail to acknowledge that children are people and gloss over the fact that every child is different. I think the consequences are quite severe since it leaves many parents feeling guilty or anxious that they aren’t doing things right or that something might be wrong with their child. Children need to be seen as people with their own likes, dislikes, and rights. Parenting should be enjoyable and this means not putting too much pressure on children and not being so hard on oneself as a parent.
“One must be careful not to confuse a good child with an easy one.”
As a new parent it didn’t take long for me to realize that this was going to be one of the most difficult and challenging responsibilities of my life. An easy child still needs to be taught our customs and conventions. All children require positive energy and patience on behalf of parents. This investment can help transform parenting into one of life’s most rewarding endeavours.
What I like most about Korczak’s writing is it reads as words of wisdom and not as advice. In my case it changed my life as a parent.
Editor’s note: Stephanie Shefrin is taking a well-deserved break from the Modern Mishpocha while she enjoys maternity leave and has arranged for Emma Mallach to write the column while she is off.