Netherlands colleague Kees Waaldijk writes about another
Korczak and the significance
We know that Korczak had a high opinion of the mutual support the children in his orphanage offered each other. The best known illustration of this is the so called ‘guardianship’ system whereby one of the older children took responsibility for a newcomer. From the written exchanges between such guardians and their ‘pupils’ we know how serious some of these contacts were.
And from Korczak’s fictional writings we know that he saw friendship and comradeship between children as having a high teaching value. So we see in Wladek how the mutual support and understanding between the three friends is more significant than that with the adults in their environment. And in When I am a child again the central figure gets more warmth from his friends than from most of the adults around.
Some workers in our field will have doubts about such a role for children in a residential setting today. Is this not too burdening a responsibility for children, especially when they themselves are still in the midst of their problems? Perhaps these doubts are legitimate and it would be unwise to imitate Korczak’s forms indiscriminately in our institutions. But residential workers have told me that in difficult situations, when they didn’t know how to find the right tone or to do the right thing toward a child, another child found a good way which contributed to the upbringing, teaching or therapeutic task.
Perhaps Korczak’s emphasis on the mutual significance of children is especially important and inspiring for us to bear in mind in residential child care. When nowadays, as a child, you enter a not-too-bad children’s home, there is at least a good chance that the adult workers will try to offer you such good things as warmth, security, activities and understanding, and that they will listen to your problems, help you find solutions and generally make your stay as helpful as possible. But do they expect you also to contribute to helping other kids – and to the climate of the group?
Isn’t there a case for emphasising the positives, the gifts and strengths which youngsters bring with them – and not only their needs and problems? Shouldn’t we take a little more seriously and be more optimistic about the capacity of children (even of children with serious problems) to understand, to support and to help their fellow residents in the programme?
It is a proof of Korczak’s educational realism that he warns us emphatically of the risks which may arise when children are placed inappropriately in positions where they can dominate other children – but for him that is not a reason to undervalue the possibilities and to reject children as potential contributors and ‘fellow care givers’.