The Child-Centered Ethos and Reconsideration of Childbearing at the Turn of the 20th Century

Efrat Davidov, Bar-Ilan University

The turn of the 20th century brought the West two seemingly contradictory trends concerning children: First, an increase in the symbolic value of children, expressed at its fullest by a child-centered paradigm; Second, a significant decline in birth rates, which may imply a marginalization of children within the public agenda. However, I shall argue that these two trends are deeply interrelated. The paper will explore and analyze the theoretical and historical connection between the enhanced value attributed to childhood and the emergence of profound reservations concerning procreation and parenting, to the extent of questioning childbearing as a self-evident axiom. I found that this connection is expressed in the thought of some of the prominent figures in the children's rights and progressive education movements. Two of them are Ellen Key and Janusz Korczak, whose writings and personal biographies will serve here as a case study. Ellen Key (1849-1926) was a Swedish social theorist and teacher. In 1900 she published her influential book, The Century of the Child. Key dedicates a chapter to "The right of the child to choose his parents," wherein she discusses who is worthy of being a parent, under what circumstances, and the duties inherent in that status. Key did not have children of her own. Janusz Korczak (1878-1942) was a Polish-Jewish pediatrician, an author, especially of children's books and pedagogical essays, and an innovative educator, orphanage director for three decades. The questions mentioned above also occupied Korczak's thought throughout his life. He chose to remain childless. Few variant reasons for this decision are scattered in his writings. These two case studies will help us portray a broader picture of this social-historical phenomenon and contribute another sentence to the history of what we may refer to as "the paedocentric movement" and the history of voluntary childlessness.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 159. Contestations over Child Rights and Welfare