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.