Tangents & Rabbit Trails

You get plenty of interruptions during the day, but the most troublesome can come from your own child! What should you do?

Mom: “So the x-axis runs horizontally, and the y-axis runs vertically. The coordinates are ordered pairs, because the order we list them in is important. If we mix them up, we will land somewhere different on the Cartesian Coordinate System.”

Student: “This reminds me of Minecraft…”

Does this sound familiar? Are your lessons constantly interrupted by tangents?

You’re not alone. This is the daily story of many homeschooling parents’ lives.

So, what do you do? Do you allow the tangent every time, or do you rein your child in? No more interruptions? Ever?

I admit, I’m one of those teachers who does not like being interrupted, most especially because I feel like it happens constantly.

The phone rings.

The doorbell rings.

The dog needs to go outside.

The timer goes off to put bread in the oven.

The buzzer on the washing machine goes off.

And now, just as I’m getting my rhythm, my beloved son wants to lecture me about Minecraft.

Of course, he’s inherited his chattiness from his mother (ahem). He’s a perpetual font of information.

As I’ve been told, “Mommy, I have so many important things to tell you, and if I don’t tell you now, I might forget.”

What’s a task-oriented, time-limited, frequently-interrupted, easily-stressed homeschooling parent to do with that?

He does have important things to say. If he’s like me, he will forget them if he doesn’t say them. I love him, and I don’t want to stomp on his tender heart. But we do need to get work done. And in the “real world” (i.e., public school, workforce, etc.), he wouldn’t be allowed this many tangents, surely!

Hmmm… what to do? Are child-led tangents valuable, or should they be squashed?

As I’ve reflected on this, I’m inspired by the fact that my young scholar is fast approaching adolescence.

In a few years he could very naturally stop sharing his important thoughts with me, especially if I continue to shut him down every time it interrupts my plans. I’ve come to realize that, yes, there is a place for tangents. (There’s also a place for learning to wait and hold your tongue. We’ll get to that later.)

The dialogue at the beginning of this article is not made up. I was teaching my son about the Cartesian Coordinate System in math, and he did launch into a lengthy explanation of how this was just like Minecraft. By God’s grace, I held my tongue. I avoided squashing the tangent and let him share his findings.

As I listened, I had this aha moment: allowing our children to make these tangential connections—even when they slow down our progress and even though it might mean a later start on dinner or shortening another class—gives our children the opportunity to hook a new concept onto other areas of knowledge. It doesn’t hinder their learning; it strengthens their understanding of the new concept.

Furthermore, it demonstrates to them that we value their thoughts and ideas. We receive the privilege of getting a glimpse at how our children make connections, how their minds work. This lets us help them make better connections in the future.

The key to success here is slowing down. I have to bite my tongue—if not literally, then metaphorically—before squashing the tangent. Stopping to listen may often be the best choice both educationally and relationally.

So, does this mean that every time my scholar has a thought in the middle of grammar, math, history or science, everything should stop, and he should be heard?

I don’t think so. If your child is like mine (and, let’s be honest, like me), his mind is constantly flooded with distracting thoughts that want to be made known to the world.

What do we do? Can we train our kids to both feel free to share those tangents that are relevant while also containing or postponing those ideas that are distracting? It takes time and patience. I’m over 40 and still learning. But I do believe that we can create an environment that cultivates thoughtful consideration before speaking. Timing is everything here. This will, in turn, decrease the volume of unhelpful tangents. Here are a few ideas:

  • Give your child a small “Ideas Notebook”. He can keep it near him during school. If he has a thought that he wants to share, he can jot a word or phrase that will help him call it to mind at a more appropriate time. This is challenging for students who are not yet writing, but you could try it with pictures if it isn’t overly time-consuming.
  • Teach your child to raise his hand. Reading aloud is a huge part of homeschooling. It’s also an easy time for (squirrel!) maddening (pardon me) interruptions. A trick that’s begun to work in our household is the hand raising technique. You don’t have to be in a formal classroom to use this! Tell your child that if he has a question (related or unrelated to the reading), he must raise his hand. If it’s a good time to pause in the reading (end of a thought, paragraph, section), you will pause to find out what he wants to share. If it’s not yet a good time to pause in the reading, you simply make eye contact, acknowledge the hand raised, indicate he can lower it, and continue reading until a good pausing point is reached. By then, his question may be answered already through the reading. He may decide that his thought wasn’t actually relevant. (Or he may have wet his pants! Be sure to clarify that if there’s an emergency, respectful interruptions are alright.)
  • At the end of a tangent, consider asking your child a few reflective questions:
    • “How has what you just shared helped you understand the lesson we’ve been working on better?”
    • If it has, affirm the tangent and thank him for sharing.
    • If not, you could ask, “When would be a more appropriate time to share that interesting thought?” (Don’t squash the thought itself, but focus on the timing of sharing it.)
  • Model, model, model. If you’re like me, you too have many thoughts that want to be expressed, and they might fly into your mind in the middle of a lesson as well. So…
    • Keep your own “Idea Notebook” nearby to jot thoughts down. Simply say, “Excuse me, I’m going to jot this thought down for later,” thus modeling what you want your child to learn to do.
    • If you do find yourself going on an unnecessary tangent, simply acknowledge it. “Oh, here I am going on a tangent. I should save that thought for later. Let’s get back on track.” Our kids see hypocrisy better than we do. Too many times I’ve been called out for my own. So, best practice is to model what we teach, and own it when we blow it.
  • And finally, when you do find yourself too quick to squash a tangent, take the time to apologize. “I’m sorry I didn’t take time to listen to your idea. I’m feeling frazzled and pressured by a full day, but I shouldn’t have squashed you.” Your child may admit that his thought was actually something he should have saved for later, or he may have the opportunity to share it. Either way, you’ve modeled repentance and grace, which is one of the biggest jobs of any parent.

Do you love teaching science class? Maybe not? 😅

You’re not alone. Science class challenges most homeschooling parents.

Too often, the lessons consume too much time, and the experiments have questionable value for the amount of waste they produce. (Paper maché volcanoes, anyone?)

You might find yourself asking, is this really worth it?

We develop science curricula to help you address these problems, and more.

We believe the best science education starts with what you already have in your home and in your yard.

We believe science is less about accumulating book-knowledge, and more about developing powers of observation and the skills to use those powers responsibly.

We believe that the true practice of science honors God by seeking to understand Him better through His creation. Any practice that rejects God as Creator or Christ as King of Creation should be rejected in turn.

💌 Sign up for our mailing list directly to get more valuable insights into homeschooling:

Thank you for giving us your time and attention! May God bless you and your family.

Peace in Christ,
David & Susan Eyk
Oak River Press