Janusz Korczak met childhood needs, fostering belonging and happiness
Mary Tarsha* is co-author
We are bombarded with advertisements and commercials that try to sell us one idea: lasting experiences of joy, happiness and security can be obtained through financial and material gain. Signs for products in every locale, on social media, tantalize with their suggestions that they can satisfy the universal human longings of the heart: a sense of belonging, happiness and love (Maslow, 1969).
But many observers have documented that as economic wealth increases in a nation, other types of wealth diminish, specifically social and ecological wealth (e.g., Korten, 2015). In the USA, where overall economic wealth has burgeoned, distrust, loneliness, despair and general psychopathology have sharply increased (Weinberger et al., 2018; Konrath, O’Brien, & Hsing, 2011).
Older, wiser community members tell us about earlier times when “people didn’t lock their doors,” children played from house to house and wandered even miles from home; neighborhoods were places where people knew each other and got along. Unfortunately, many of us no longer experience these types of communities.
Community connection and wellbeing were fundamental to the success of our species (Hrdy, 2009) and are always important for successful societies. So what has undermined supportive communities in the USA?
Here is a key source of the decay. Young children need a loving evolved nest to grow a healthy body, brain and relationships. When they miss the ongoing physical presence of the (same) responsive caregiver, the body does not grow as well. Young brains require the right hormonal bath for scheduled growth patterns. Babies need the attachment figure, usually mother, to provide the touch and responsiveness that maintain happy arousal while the brain is growing 40,000 synapses per second.
But many adults today themselves missed critical support to meet their basic needs in childhood, leaving gaps in social and emotional intelligence(widely apparent among school children today). Adults whose support was suboptimal in early childhood often fail to respond to the needs of infants and children, instead treating them how they were treated. If they did not receive responsive care, they often do not know how to provide it to their children. Instead, their children’s needs trigger their own long unmet needs and they cannot cope. Unless they are healed through relationships or therapy or self-development, they can perpetuate an intergenerational cycle of relational poverty.
So then we also have an answer for, what happened to the sense of belonging, happiness and love that are critical for attaining human potential and happiness. Those who grow up on a less-than-optimal pathway, have learned the wrong things: insecurity, low self-esteem, self-centeredness and ultimately, an empty self—a gap in self-trust, self-knowledge and trust of others. And they do not trust their baby or themselves.
Adults who lacked supportive care early on can struggle to provide the sensitive and responsive care to their own children (Perry & Salavitz, 2006). If they don’t know what responsive care feels or looks like, they won’t know how to provide it. They need role models.
Janusz Korczak, a Polish, Jewish pediatrician and author of over 20 books (never married), dedicated his life to serving children working as a wychowawca, a special type of teacher who dedicates his/her entire life towards understanding, seeing, caring for and providing for children. During his life, he built two orphanages for abandoned and orphaned children.
Dr. Korczak’s love and dedication to children was developed through many hours spent observing and studying children who suffered parental loss or unresponsive or abusive care (Korczak, 1978). Orphans are typically developmentally delayed from relational neglect (McLaughlin et al., 2017; Smyke et al., 2007). He developed an acute awareness of the inner-workings of children and their sufferings.
Dr. Korczak described how a lack of understanding and inability to perceive the child has parallels in other forms of discrimination. Many times in history, a society has failed to acknowledge those who were most marginalized. For him, there was no difference between racism, sexism, social class prejudices and neglecting the needs of children.
Dr. Korczak developed a pedagogical model or system to help children fulfill their potential. Teaching a child was not a matter of practicing pedagogy but was the act of respecting the child in the here and now. One first establishes a relationship with the child by entering into their world and engaging with the child about who they are and what they desire. Through respectful dialogue, the teacher is emotionally present and engaged in the moment. Children need the experience of being with another person who is fully present—the definition of caring for a child or another person.
“Children are not future people, because they are people” (Lewowicki, 1994, p.41). Children are valuable and important now, precisely because they exist. Children deserve the same respect and protection of their dignity as any adult precisely because they are people now, not future people or individuals that will one day grow into valuable, mature adults.
Then, through respectful relationship, the teacher helps guide the student develop needed skills while maintaining a deep reverence for the child’s self-authorship or self-formation. As Korczak pointed out, often times, adults and parents wish their children would develop into better versions of themselves (Korczak, 1967b). That is, they envision their child to like the things they like, to enjoy the things they find pleasurable and beautiful. However, this expectation directly cuts against the basic need of children to develop themselves, to follow their inner guide, their inner wisdom for the direction of their lives.
Adults take responsibility for honoring the physical, social and moral development of the child by stepping outside themselves (Korczak, 1967b; Lewowicki, 1994):
“But as for us, being centered on our own struggles and troubles, we fail to see the child, just as at one time we were unable to see the woman, the peasant, the oppressed social strata and oppressed peoples. We have arranged things for ourselves so that children should be in our way as little as possible and have as little chance as possible to know what we really are and what we really do” (1967a, p. 147).
Thus, to help a child become herself, the adult partner must be on the same journey of self discovery.
When young children are undercared for, a cycle of relational poverty across generations can be instigated, causing epidemics of ill health from early misorganized neurobiology (Lanius et al., 2010). Dr. Korczak shows us a way to break the cycle, by adult self-formation and by lovingly attending to the basic needs of children. In this way, adults can help children grow into healthy adults who create caring communities—perpetuating a cycle of caring companionship.
The Nazis entered Poland in 1939. As they tightened their control of the Jewish population, Korczak was given more than one opportunity to be relieved of the treatment given the Jews (offers to help him escape came from authorities who knew his children’s books). However, each time he refused. He moved with his children into the ghetto. Later when the Nazis rounded up all the children to put them on a train, he stayed with them. When he was again offered a chance to escape, his reported response was: “You do not leave a sick child in the night and you do not leave children at a time like this.” The train took him, the staff and the children to Treblinka, a termination camp, where they were all killed.
Dr. Korczak was dedicated to keeping his children in a web of belonging, happiness and love, no matter the circumstance. We can do the same.
*Mary Tarsha, M.Ed., is a PhD student in Developmental Psychology and Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Research, Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame.
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