catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 11 :: 2004.05.21 — 2004.06.03


Setting the feet on the pathway

A short study in diversity:

  • The Winnebago, one of the Algonquian tribes of the Great Lakes, tell a certain set of stories to their children, often in a specific order, at certain times of the year. Each story serves to build a sense of self in the child, as well as providing him or her a solid grounding in tradition. The Winnebago call this "setting the feet on the pathway." These stories are considered their childhood teachings, but they are not taught by experts in a classroom, separate from the rest of life. Instead, these stories are woven in and around the interactions of daily lives, the work of survival, and the rituals that bind the tribe together.


  • Aleut boys would play with small dolls in kayaks, while the girls learned many tasks of everyday life by playing with their dolls, clothed in squirrel furs that the girls had trapped themselves.


  • Inupiat fathers created story knives for their little girls, usually carved out of bone or ivory. The girl would learn to tell stories from the women of her family, and she would use her knife to illustrate the tales, drawing symbols and pictures in the snow or sand or mud. One text compares the story knife to art therapy, a valuable tool for processing troubling fears and for exploring curious dreams, all while playing.


There is no one right way to raise a child, no one right way to grow up. But our culture has often behaved as though there were, as though we needed to control all aspects of our children's behavior, so they will follow the one right way. The Creator may see fit to give humans free will, but parents and teachers are not so easily convinced.

Some might say that fashioning a self is the most important test that any of us will ever endure. It is an on-going test, and the signs of negotiating it successfully are recognizable: being a whole man or woman means being capable, aware of one's own gifts, and involved in a community, acting as both student and teacher, giver and receiver. Creating a whole self is not a matter of pouring rules and facts onto a person, like paint on a canvas. Self-discovery is more like sculpture, continually carving and defining the most compelling features, waiting for the shape to reveal itself. Discovering a self requires time, solitude, privacy, and a lot of room to make one's own mistakes.

Is it worth the work? Oh yes. The self is an amazing and complex gift from God.
Take me, for example.

Something I've learned to accept about my self is that I rarely stay in the same place for long, intellectually speaking. One month I'm researching the history of salt; the next I'm following someone's throwaway comment into a study of quantum theory as it relates to time. Sometimes this haphazard, forager approach causes me to wander into subjects that make others uncomfortable: Noam Chomsky's views on the Iraqi war, the intricacies of a Buddhist worldview—these don't make for easy conversation at Sunday dinner with the grandparents.

And yet I can't go back—learning cracks me open, and I can't return to what I was. There are times when I don't want to sleep or eat or talk, I just want to dive into whatever it is I'm reading or learning about until . . . well, until I don't need to anymore.

This crazy patchwork of passions is part of what makes me a whole and capable woman, able to enjoy my family, attend to my daily tasks, be part of my community, and greet each day with some measure of gratitude. It is integral to my self, to what God made when he spoke the secret word that is my name of names.

Self-knowledge leads to the realization that some truths are indeed universal to all people. It shouldn't have surprised me when, a few months ago, I realized that my children might learn by the same leaps-and-bounds, fits-and-starts, helter-skelter method that I do. That maybe their learning should not be scheduled from eight o'clock to three o'clock, segregated into separate subjects or units, with only the materials deemed appropriate for the classroom by legislatures and school boards. Their eagerness to learn seemed to fade a bit every time their activities were interrupted by bells, assemblies, and teacher reminders. It occurred to me that, like me, my children don't learn in slow and steady progression, using the prescribed order of building blocks—nouns before verbs, addition before subtraction. It seems obvious, upon reflection, that children's interests rarely look much like the subjects of English, Math, Social Studies and Science. And yet I have no doubt that their interests will lead to meaningful learning and self-discovery, just as mine have.

It occurred to me that these components of school—the subjects, the bells, the restricted access to food, drink and toilet—work against a child's process of growing up. These components give others—well-meaning adults though they may be—a degree of control that should belong to the child. Outside of sleep, school and extracurricular activities, the average schoolchild has only 9 hours a week left in which to fashion a self.

And so I was ready, several months ago, when I encountered the word "unschooling." As with salt and quantum theory, I had to know everything about it. Unschooling is a word used by homeschoolers who take a completely natural and child-led approach to learning.

For many, the concept of child-led learning stops at the Montessori school, but the unschooling approach is very different. While Montessori students are using carefully planned classroom materials and being encouraged to move from one skill to another, unschoolers may be spending the entire day playing soccer, or going fishing, or playing role-playing games . . .

The unschooled child gets to do whatever he or she wants, all day, every day, to the extent the family can support it. The parent's job is to facilitate—answer questions, offer books and resources, plan field trips, register for special activities and classes—all initiated by the child's interest.

As I see the concept in the words I've just written, it sounds very simple. In reality, it took months of research to be able to deal with my own questions, objections and fears. I read John Holt by the armload and waded through hundreds of emails on Internet discussion lists. Calling my son's school and telling his first grade teachers that we wouldn't be returning did not feel simple. Explaining our decision to parents and friends was a series of carefully orchestrated events.
I thought my chance to be a radical had passed, once with the 1960s, then again with my college years. I thought I would spend my life reading about revolutionaries of different eras, cheering them on from my armchair. It was a comfortable thought. But in this I have come to live a revolutionary life.

I cover it up pretty well, though. To casual questions about our homeschooling, I say we take a "fairly natural" learning approach. I explain that I used to be a teacher, talk about how following a child's interests leads to high retention of subject matter—ah, I'm still such a coward, hiding behind the language of institutional schooling.

The truth? My son watches TV, plays video games, and goofs around with his baby brother much of the day. The video games in particular have been a safe place to make lots of mistakes and learn from them in relative privacy and when stakes are low.

When the neighborhood kids come home from school, my son plays with them…unless he says no. He goes to bed late and gets up at a reasonable hour—unless he sleeps in. He eats what he likes all day…unless he's too busy to eat the food I bring him. Then he usually has a meltdown in the afternoon.

Sometimes he helps with picking up around the house, but most of the time he's too involved in battling Pokemon or being an Air Pirate to bother. He likes the bathtub once he's there, but sometimes a week or two goes by before he finds the time.

And he talks…how he talks. Mostly to me, and to himself, and sometimes he'll provide both parts of a conversation with his brother, who is not yet one year old. I go through my days surrounded by his little voice, showing me the latest problem he's solved on his Yu-Gi-Oh video game, reading aloud a funny bit of text here and there, counting to 100 just because he can, and giggling at the antics of Shaggy and Scooby-Doo. He balances on the arm of the couch and hangs upside down and rolls about on the floor, all accompanied by cries of "Look, Mom!"

My son's days may look like a lot of nothing, but I hear the fashioning of a self, a personality rounded out with confidence, and freedom, and joy.

Before, I used the control of conventional parenting—time-outs, the occasional spanking (leaving me guilt-ridden), nagging, sending him away to be socialized and schooled—but I will not do it again. I will give my sons a freedom similar to that which I enjoy; I will give them both time to search out their own unique wholeness.

For in the end, I believe the greatest test we will ever pass or fail in our lives is the test of sculpting out our selves. These are diverse selves planted in us by a loving and amazing Creator; these are selves that reflect his own image, for there truly is no one right way to grow into an image as vast and complex as his.

Discussion: Public or parochial, home or "un-"

What is (or would be) your choice educational method for your children and why? How does your own education factor into that decision? What are your thoughts on unschooling as the author describes it?

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