Setting the Feet on the Pathway

Amy Carpenter Leugs is a former teacher and a children’s book author who serves on the Board of Directors at Open Doors.  She and her husband have three sons who live and learn at home, not at school.  The family started their self-directed learning journey in 2003.  The post below is re-written from a 2004 essay by the same name, which can be read in its original form here:  https://www.catapultmagazine.com/pass-fail/article/setting-the-feet-on

by Amy Carpenter Leugs

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.

On the other hand, 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.

And in still a different example, 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.

I share these different perspectives to make a point:  there is no one right way to raise a child, no one right way to grow up.   Over millennia, hundreds of cultures have found many right ways to interact with children and teens.  But our culture has often behaved as though there were only one right way, as though we needed to control all aspects of our children’s behavior, so they, in turn, will follow the one right way.

Amy and her three sons have chosen self-directed learning.
Amy and her three sons chose the path of self-directed learning.

If we accept that there isn’t one right way to educate a child – if we accept that a classroom and textbooks and a teacher up front isn’t the only way to learn – how do we know what to do?

This is where self-directed learning comes in.  In a safe environment, with time, the child herself will know what to do – organically and naturally, by following what she loves, by pursuing her interests, by doing the things that make her shine.  She may, like all children, feel bored or unsure at times, but she will find it empowering to find her own way through, with support from adults and other teens.

This is the decision my family made eleven years ago, and we have never looked back.

We talk a lot about testing in schools these days.  But it can be argued 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 free time, privacy, and a lot of room to make one’s own mistakes.   It requires interactions with adults who are not trying to control, but who are willing to listen and share their own experiences.

Because Amy's sons learn at home, they have more time to pursue their passions.
Amy’s sons learn out of the classroom and in the real world while pursuing their passions.

Outside of sleep, school and extracurricular activities, the average schoolchild has only 9 hours a week left in which to fashion a self.   It’s not enough.  This is why self-directed learning is such a powerful option – an option that naturally allows for diversity, an option that encourages teens to grow into curious and whole adults with a true sense of themselves.  I see it in my three sons every day, and I see it in the teens at Open Doors.

As Helen Hegener writes, “For better or worse, we learn every day, wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, whoever we’re with. We learn good things, useful things, handy things — and we learn bad things, destructive things, things we might someday wish we hadn’t learned. Life’s like that. On the whole, though, learning serves us quite well, and we’re constantly arranging and rearranging our learning so it’s more useful to us.” 

And as Carl Rogers writes, “If we value independence, if we are disturbed by the growing conformity of knowledge, of values, of attitudes, which our present system induces, then we may wish to set up conditions of learning which make for uniqueness, for self-direction, and for self-initiated learning.”

Many parents and teens have no idea how to start on this journey themselves.  That’s where Open Doors can help, with mentoring, classes, and community for support.

This post is part of our “Our Stories” series, which aims to explore the personal experiences and journeys of Open Doors’ members and staff, and brought to you with support from the Wege Foundation.

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