Mom took a deep breath and began to read aloud:

I wonder how many of my readers have ever sat upon an ottoman. If you have, you know that it . . .

“What’s an ottoman, Mom?” six-year-old Stacy interrupted.

“If you listen, it will explain . . . ” Mom began.

“It sounds like a super hero: Otto-Man!” eight-year-old Nathan chimed in with a grin.

“I wonder what his super power would be?” Stacy added. “Maybe he would . . . “

“Let’s get back to the story and see what an ottoman really is,” directed Mom, and she picked up where she had left off.

. . . you know that it is a soft, round, tufted stool, comfortable for resting your feet, especially a father’s feet after a long day spent hard at work. . . .

“Dad doesn’t put his feet up after he gets home from work,” mentioned Nathan.

“It sounds something like a footstool,” said Stacy. “Why don’t they just say ‘footstool’?”

“What time is Dad getting home tonight, anyway?” asked Nathan.

Mom plowed ahead.

. . . I fancy you may wonder how it got such a funny name. Well, when . . .

“I didn’t say it was a funny name,” explained Stacy. “I just wondered why they didn’t use the name ‘footstool.’ After all, that’s what it is, and . . . “

Mom tried to redirect focus.

. . . when the furniture maker began making this new kind of footstool . . .

“There you go,” interjected Nathan. “They just said it was a footstool.”

“Oh, good,” replied Stacy. “But I still wonder why they didn’t just say that in the first place. Why did they call it an ottoman?”

“You are about to find out,” sighed Mother, “if you will just listen.”

. . . he called it an “ottoman” because its shape reminded him of the round hats worn by officials in the Ottoman Empire. . . .

“Sailors wear round hats too,” added Stacy.

Mom shut the book.

Relating and Rambling

Charlotte Mason told us that Education is the Science of Relations. We want our children to form personal relations and to make mental connections with what they are hearing or reading.

In the scenario above, were Stacy and Nathan forming relations? Yes. Their minds were busy thinking of what else in their experience was connected to what they were hearing. They were curious and they were mentally interacting with the narrative.

But they were also frustrating their mother and hindering the story. Why? Because they were allowing their thoughts to ramble.

Charlotte described it this way: “You talk to a child about glass—you wish to provoke a proper curiousity as to how glass is made, and what are its uses. Not a bit of it; he wanders off to Cinderella’s glass slipper; then he tells you about his godmother who gave him a boat; then about the ship in which Uncle Harry went to America; then he wonders why you do not wear spectacles, leaving you to guess that Uncle Harry does so. But the child’s ramblings are not whimsical; they follow a law, the law of association of ideas, by which any idea presented to the mind recalls some other idea which has been at any time associated with it—as glass, and Cinderella’s slipper; and that, again some idea associated with it. Now this law of association of ideas is a good servant and a bad master” (Vol. 1, p. 138).

The difference between helpful relating and distracting rambling is in whether we allow the law of association to be a servant or a master.

Directing the Thoughts

As a servant, the law of association will help us recall what we need to remember when we need it. But as a master, the law of association will make our homeschools a tiring tug-of-war.

Charlotte recognized that fact: “Here is the secret of the weariness of the home schoolroom—the children are thinking all the time about something else than their lessons; or rather, they are at the mercy of the thousand fancies that flit through their brains, each in the train of the last” (Vol. 1, p. 139).

We must help our children learn to give direction to these trains of thought. A vigorous effort of will should enable them to turn the gaze of their mind’s eye away from those flitting fancies and onto the lesson at hand. And as they exercise their mental “muscles” in this way, they will subdue the law of association and make it their servant, rather than their master.

As with any muscle-strengthening exercise, it will take effort. It will take time. It will take patience. But we owe it to our children to help them stop their rambling and learn to direct their thoughts. “Where is the harm? In this: not merely that the children are wasting time, though that is a pity; but that they are forming a desultory habit of mind, and reducing their own capacity for mental effort” (Vol. 1, p. 139).

So how do you go about helping your child direct his thoughts and get control over the distracting rambling? Here are a few ideas.

  • During a neutral time—not in the middle of a lesson—mention that commenting in the middle of the reading is like interrupting. He is interrupting the author. Briefly explain that you want to help him learn good listening manners, whether in conversation or in school work.
  • Use the same technique Charlotte described for reinforcing the habit of attention. Start short. Before you begin to read, remind the child about not interrupting. Explain that you will stop at times to allow him to add his comments, but he is not to blurt out those comments in between stops. Start with one or two paragraphs, then invite comments. Gradually lengthen the reading time as your child progresses in this listening etiquette.
  • Make sure your child is getting enough time between readings in order to process all of his relations and explore all of those trains of thought on his own. Charlotte did not schedule reading from the same book every day; she scheduled time between readings for the child to ruminate on what he had heard.

Have you dealt with constant interruptions and rambling thoughts? What are some ways you have been able to help your child learn to direct his thoughts and listen politely? Leave a comment and share your ideas with other moms who may be dealing with rambling.

Our New History Books

If you want to read about the Ottomans without interruption, the rest of the chapter (started in the scenario above) is in our new Stories of the Nations, Volume 1. We are also excited about Stories of America, Volume 1 and the Early Modern and Epistles handbook that gives daily lesson plans for using both history books along with other great living books for all ages.


  1. It’s not that my kids blurt out in the middle of reading but it’s the wondering mind that I see when I read. Eyes going in every direction. Lips mouthing words of the poster overhead.
    I have been able to help them focus at listening by printing out a coloring sheet that relates to the story. As they color they tend to pay attention better and longer. I then can ask narration questions and get good answers vs. something totally unrelated due to the wondering mind.

  2. What I love about Charlotte Mason’s apporach to teaching is that she allows children to be themsleves and at the same time trains them to be the best they can be…such as this post.
    I love hearing what my kids have to say, to learn what they are thinking about and how a particular reading is interesting them BUT NOT when they interrupt. This is a very good social skill for any person to learn. We began listening ettiquitte early on in our reading times. We have practiced all that was state above and it is delighful to read to them as you see them learning this great skill of self control. One thing that has helped my boys is to raise their hand if they want to comment or ask a question about something that was read. This way I know there is something to slow down for and can find an appropriate spot in the reading to give them a chance to speak. It also allows them a way to communicate with me without interrupting. If they interrupt the story whie I am reading I will sometimes raise my hand to remind them what they should do.

  3. In reading your post, it was as if you were listening to my family during our reading time! Thank you so much for posting this was such a help.

  4. I always, always have a very attentive ‘audience’ when their mouths are full! :0) Lunch time has been a favorite time for read-alouds, as my audience is quite captive. I try to make sure everyone has everything they might need, ie., napkins, water, etc. An older child is designated to get up during reading if need be. When we have read-aloud in the evening, my husband is reading during this time after dinner, so I can make sure the children are quiet, coloring, etc.

  5. I cannot tell you how timely this is. Just the other day, as I was trying yet again to keep my kids on track, I imagined I was the only mom on the planet who was struggling to make this work. My girls ask all sorts of questions during our reading times. It’s the really off the wall comments that show me just how much their minds are wandering, but I thought maybe I was stifling their narrating skills by asking them not to interrupt. To hear that this is a normal thought process that just needs training is such an encouragement. Thank you.

  6. We also use mealtimes for read-aloud time. Breakfast and Bible, Lunch and Literature. Works great and fewer interruptions!

  7. Very timely for me as well. I was just wondering (my OWN rambling) this morning as my husband was reading out loud how to direct the focus of my 7 year old and 10 year old to the material. These ideas are great…for me and for them! Thank you!

  8. Thank you! I have struggled in the past with getting frustrated (unjustly) when my children interrupted. It has taken me a while to learn not to be frustrated by it, but rather realize that each explanation I give is another vocabulary word they are learning. Your post is very encouraging and timely. I don’t have to allow the interruptions all the time, and it would be better for their minds if I trained them to control it! Ahh! What a relief, and I am grateful for the direction!

  9. I laughed when I read this description of our family reading time! The ramblings sounded just like my three Beauties (7,6,4). What great ideas everyone has! Thank you.

  10. The story of my life! I had “solved” it, using scoratic questioning as a way of interacting with my kids. Reading is the problem, and it irks me to no end. Unfair as it is

  11. I struggle with this all the time in various situations with my middle child.. I was just thinking.. How about letting them have a notepad and pencil while I’m reading aloud, and let them write out their thoughts as you are reading? I’m wondering if this might be better for older kids with attention issues..hmmm.. I think I’m going to try it with my 9 yr old and just see how it works out!

    • I think my main concern would be that it might be hard to listen at the same time as they are writing. I know I have a hard time writing one thing while listening to something else. It seems like this strategy might require them to listen with only partial attention. I would be curious to hear how the “try” works for you.

      • We have 6 children now 11-18, and of the 5 boys most have ADD/ADHD or autism spectrum disorder. We do LOTS of reading out loud and they are old enough now to express how much drawimg geometric shapes, or perhaps illustrating the story, or tracing a new word heard in the story helps them to focus. There are times when they must just sit (as in church) because it does build their character and teach them a life-skill. But I have found that for special needs kids, coloring or sketching intentionally gives them tremendous focus for a much longer period, and aids memory. Their diligent listening is evident by their quiet mouths now, though their hands are very busy. Note: If your child does not have neurological issues (we have two), it is a great blessing to them to teach them to be quiet and just listen when very young. They can pay amazing attention now and are so grateful.

    • I had also thought perhaps having them jot down (or draw) what they wanted to comment or ask would be helpful, and I could pause occasionally to receive those comments and questions. The problem with that is that my autistic son has moderate to severe difficulty writing and drawing, and he could not jot down his thoughts quickly. Also, my artistic daughter, who does sometimes draw during read-alouds, gets lost in her artwork. I know that I cannot write a grocery list and attentively listen to someone speaking….too busy thinking about what I need for the enchiladas!

      I do like the idea of raising their hands to signal that they have a question or comment, although that still leaves the issue of my son who often forgets what he was going to say rather quickly if not called upon to speak.

  12. I have found that a read ahead by me (mom) is usually the only remedy to avoid ignorance issues which become interruptions. It must be premeditated by me if I am to remain the trainer and coach I intend to be. Sometimes if not interrupting, they do not develop complete understanding because they don’t want to make the effort ,don’t notice the opportunity to learn or sense impatience in me. If when reading ahead I find words that I am only vaguely familiar with, it alerts me to my own need to patiently submit my mind to listening better in general. My attitude often rubs off for better or worse in how I approach the lesson. They can tell if I am in a hurry to get the lesson done. What example is that? In doing book studies, I have created templates somewhat like a pastor’s note page for sermons, or we create charts as we go (new vocabulary, characters sketches,etc) to fill in as we read. If it becomes a quite involved discussion to stop and discuss the meaning of a new vocabulary word, I will simply reread the last paragraph containing that new word or idea so they can now listen and apply (make an instant relation). Yes, it has been a bit frustrating at times to stay on track when discipline habits aren’t up to where they should be, but that is an important element of the learning time. It should not be divorced from the content. I would rather take a few extra minutes and forego some extra play time than to hurry ahead. Not always possible, but again, I would rather break a (taking) longer chapter into an extra chapter to be done later than to hurry the impressionable minds along -including mine.

  13. More discussion would be good about the training process. In my comments below, I focused on ideas for older children who are able to read and write decently. For any young child who likes them, coloring pages are quite useful in most cases but how else can we train them for polite attention besides rehearsing the protocol for actual listening without interruption? In all cases, practise is necessary. With younger children, reminders of the rules may get better concentration for the older ones and that IS important- to provide a quiet example. Participation from everyone is impossible without understanding, though. Most children will act out if they don’t feel truly included. Inge Cannon gave a workshop once (I listened to on a tape) about a bus stop idea. Letting off the youngest first to do something has it’s merit if you know where you’re supposed to end up. Getting to the end of a lesson cannot be our only goal. Using the older ones’ knowledge comes in handy here. Like with our devotions, I have found it helpful to ask a question ahead,”Do you know what… means?” Letting the older ones “give the sense” where they’re able shows good example of using information to help others but also primes the older ones simultaneously to receive input from the teacher if they don’t really know well themselves. I have the dictionary ready and maybe an inner thesaurus of past experiences to add. If I have a certain goal, with activity pages ready, it always runs smoother. What if I haven’t prepared “well enough” to anticipate the potential meanderings? So what !? Its relations. We’ve been trained (most of us) in the Greek model not the Biblical. Hearts first. If the youngest is too young to participate at all beyond coloring quietly, or using blocks to build something related to the story to show later (in a place partially removed from the others to avoid distraction OR is unwilling to do what is suggested, we must remember there are other forces at work besides our own motivation levels. Ideals get busted because no advice however wonderful is applied in a vacuum. We need to give our whole family (including ourselves) permission to recover from a bad day or bad try at a lesson. Perhaps a prayer before we start without pretense of success on our own terms. Before we try to apply a formula of advice that seems sure to work, address the factors that may have contributed to the difficulty. Usually we can trace the roots of a bad day and we are just expecting too much. We are first; mothers- but also adult children with things to learn. We have a mixed brood-even with one child ! Impatience will put pressure on everyone to live up to something that may not be right without a good deal of tweaking. Beware of thinking that you’ re missing something whenever things go wrong ;feeling like a failure when things go hairy. Learning is a process that requires so much more than information or experience. Even combined with desire or goals, keep in mind; education is NOT the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire. The more consistent we become at tending that fire (that God ignites) of the whole person, the less we will struggle with “interruptions” and “delays”.

  14. I love this article! How helpful to know how to deal with this childhood issue. The truth is, many grown-ups have the same problem because they were never trained differently, however children are still under our authority. 🙂

    It really applies to other times: chore time for example. My oldest in the houes wants to come and share every thought he is having while in the middle of his work – school work too! So does the next oldest actually. I have to constantly remind them to go back and concentrate on their work.

    That is what stuck out to me the first time read this article! Love the practicality of Charlotte Mason you lend to each of your articles or workshops. Thanks!

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