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The first Children’s Charter
  1. A N Williams
  1. Child Development Centre, Northampton General Hospital, Northampton, NN1 5BD, UK;

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    Janusz Korczak (Dr Henryk Goldszmit) (1878/9–1942) is a man of whom the majority of paediatricians are unaware. A doctor, early child psychologist, children’s advocate, writer, broadcaster and playwright, he pioneered in his practice and ideas many areas which today would be regarded as mainstream paediatric care. He was a man who devoted his life to children and their welfare.

    An early children’s advocate, he wrote the first Children’s Charter. “Korczak spoke of the need for a Declaration of Children’s Rights long before any such document was drawn up by the Geneva Convention (1924) or the United Nations General Assembly (1959). The Declaration he envisaged—not a plea for good will but a demand for action—was left uncompleted at the time of his death”.1

    His last years were spent running a children’s home in the Warsaw Ghetto during the early years of the Second World War.

    In August 1942, he and the children were marched to the railway station for transportation for “resettlement”. At the station he was recognised by a German medical officer who gave him the chance to save himself. He declined with the words “One does not leave a sick child—my place is with them”.

    He kept to his word. He and the children were taken to Treblinka—an extermination camp.

    No one survived.

    Nowadays the accuracy of words is often debased and it is all too easy to become self absorbed and forget the very real struggles that have and are still being fought for the rights of children in this world.

    Janusz Korczak and the events of his time still have much to teach us.

    This table is taken from The King of Children by Betty Jean Lifton and is compiled by her from Korczak’s works: How to Love a Child and The Child’s Right to Respect from those rights which Korczak felt most essential.

    I have found this biography inspirational and I would unhesitatingly recommend it to any who are interested in child health.

    The child has the right to love.

    (Korczak: “Love the child, not just your own.”)

    The child has the right to respect.

    (Korczak: “Let us demand respect for shining eyes, smooth foreheads, youthful effort and confidence. Why should dulled eyes, a wrinkled brow, untidy gray hair, or tired resignation command greater respect?”)

    The child has the right to optimal conditions in which to grow and develop.

    (Korczak: “We demand: do away with hunger, cold, dampness, stench, overcrowding, overpopulation.”)

    The child has the right to live in the present.

    (Korczak: “Children are not people of tomorrow; they are people today.”)

    The child has the right to be himself or herself.

    (Korczak: “A child is not a lottery ticket, marked to win the main prize.”)

    The child has the right to make mistakes.

    (Korczak: “There are no more fools among children than among adults.”)

    The child has the right to fail.

    (Korczak: “We renounce the deceptive longing for perfect children.”)

    The child has the right to be taken seriously.

    (Korczak: “Who asks the child for his opinion and consent?”)

    The child has the right to be appreciated for what he is.

    (Korczak: “The child, being small, has little market value.”)

    The child has the right to desire, to claim, to ask.

    (Korczak: “As the years pass, the gap between adult demands and children’s desires becomes progressively wider.”)

    The child has the right to have secrets.

    (Korczak: “Respect their secrets.”)

    The child has the right to “a lie, a deception, a theft”.

    (Korczak: “He does not have the right to lie, deceive, steal.”)

    The child has the right to respect for his possessions and budget.

    (Korczak: “Everyone has the right to his property, no matter how insignificant or valueless.”)

    The child has the right to education.

    The child has the right to resist educational influence that conflicts with his or her own beliefs.

    (Korczak: “It is fortunate for mankind that we are unable to force children to yield to assaults upon their common sense and humanity.”)

    The child has the right to protest an injustice.

    (Korczak: “We must end despotism.”)

    The child has the right to a Children’s Court where he can judge and be judged by his peers.

    (Korczak: “We are the sole judges of the child’s actions, movements, thoughts, and plans. I know that a Children’s Court is essential, that in fifty years there will not be a single school, not a single institution without one.”)

    The child has the right to be defended in the juvenile-justice court system.

    (Korczak: “The delinquent child is still a child. Unfortunately, suffering bred of poverty spreads like lice: sadism, crime, uncouthness, and brutality are nurtured on it.”)

    The child has the right to respect for his grief.

    (Korczak: “Even though it be for the loss of a pebble.”)

    The child has the right to commune with God.

    The child has the right to die prematurely.

    (Korczak: “The mother’s profound love for her child must give him the right to premature death, to ending his life cycle in only one or two springs. Not every bush grows into a tree.”)