by Oliver DeMille

To Topic or Not to Topic

dad-son_canstockphoto1739636I was recently talking to a fabulous homeschooling dad, and he said something that rang too true. “We read the scriptures together aloud as a family pretty much every day,” his wife said, “and we discuss them and other classics a lot.” Then she looked at him and laughed. “But there is one thing I wish you’d tell men,” she continued.

He laughed with her, and jumped into the conversation. “I know where she’s going with this, and she’s right. But I just don’t know what to do…

“When we read and discuss,” he explained, “I want to stick to the topic. Very often one of the kids will raise a hand, and I’ll call on her because I think she’s going to share something about the current subject, or about the thing we just read. But instead, the kid will just start talking about something unrelated, like what she has to do tomorrow.

“And then,” he was a bit exasperated by this point, “my wife will just start talking to her about the unrelated topic. Sometimes it goes on for a while, and I just sit there wondering why I’m even there. Are we talking about the thing we’re reading, or not?”

By this point Rachel and I were laughing as well. This was obviously a real frustration for this great father and mentor. And I didn’t have much advice for him. The truth is, a lot of dads face this baffling reality. I know I do.

The Answer

Think about it. Here the man is, putting down his remote control, his work projects, and all his other hobbies, after a long day of work, and sitting down to read scripture and classics aloud with the family.

Not only this, but he’s taking the time to discuss the ideas in what they read, and listen, learn, and teach along with the other family members.

I mean, are you kidding me? For most men, this is quite a feat. Deep down, any man who does this (including me, and I love classics and teach them for a living) is pretty sure he should have a medal or two pinned on his chest for this Herculean contribution to the family. “How many other dads in our neighborhood are doing what I am?” the man is thinking.

Actually, a lot of dads do it. More all the time. But this doesn’t mean it’s natural or easy for every dad. Don’t get me wrong. Reading aloud with the family is awesome! It takes a real man to keep doing this, year after year. It’s downright great.

If you’re such a father, you’re awesome! Keep it up. Your leadership is accomplishing great things for your kids.

But back to the topic of this article: What should a dad do when the other people in the family start talking about every possible topic under the sun—except for the one you’ve all gathered to discuss?

Here’s the real answer: Tangents are great! Let them happen. It’s okay. Moreover, it is excellent learning. The more topics the family includes during such conversations, the more connections the young people are making in their brains.

Since all topics of learning are interrelated, tangents are actually a necessary part of any really quality education.

Make it the Point

This drives a lot of men crazy, because many of us operate in MPM (Male Project Mode). This means we want to tackle one problem at a time, solve it as quickly and effectively as possible, and then move on to the next thing.

Slowing down to experience long conversations about whatever is on the minds of each family member—evening after evening—is a real stretch for many of us.

But it works. If we stick it out, it has a huge, positive impact on the education of our children and youth. Almost nothing teaches young people more knowledge, truth, or wisdom than such discussions. This is real.

Beyond this, taking the time to let everyone share tangents has another significant benefit.

Men who practice this tend to get better at it, and this makes them much more effective leaders in every role in life—work, career, church or community service, family life, etc. Men who aren’t good listeners generally experience more relationship struggles.

Of course, there are men who are exceptions to these generalizations. But for many of us, tangents are exactly what we need. They help us slow down and think more like students—which is a great way to connect more closely with those in our home who are focused every day on teaching and learning.

This is a big deal. The energy of work so often competes with the energy of learning, causing frequent disconnect between dads on the one hand and homeschooling kids and moms on the other.

Reading together, discussing, and exploring tangents, naturally gets everyone on the same wavelength. This is a perfect way for dads to really connect with everyone in the family.

Learning to Hear

In fact, if you want to get closer to each member of your family, make this a recurring project: hold frequent family reading times, allow a lot of discussion, and really listen as everyone shares their various tangents. If this sounds wimpy, you haven’t tried it enough. It takes strength and guts, and real grit.

But don’t just sacrifice in this. Go beyond that. Get serious about it. Engage every tangent. Encourage everyone to share, talk, and connect. Really listen. Really pay attention.

The best example I ever saw of this was a church leader I once worked with. He was serving in a volunteer role as leader for about 400 people in several adjacent neighborhoods, and it was a lot of work.

In this setting, each month the leaders opened the Sunday meeting up to anyone who wanted to talk—to stand and share whatever was in their heart.

One day in an early morning meeting this man told me something very interesting. I’ve never forgotten it.

He noted how much he loved these Sundays where everyone spoke spontaneously from the heart, and then he said, “Before I was asked to serve in this leadership position, I used to feel bored in these meetings. But now I am so interested.

“The more I get to know the people in this church unit, and the more I understand their challenges and struggles, the more I am so excited to hear them share whatever is on their mind.”

I really thought about this, and then one day in a family discussion when Rachel and the kids were off topic (in my opinion), I found myself remembering these words from this leader. As these two things coincided in that moment, something amazing happened.

I found myself sitting back in my chair and really listening to what everyone had to say.

Listening to the Real Subject

Instead of trying to get everyone back on the official topic, I realized that everything they were talking about actually was on topic. The topic was truth, which is the whole point of all education anyway.

And then the real shift came.

As I stopped trying to control the conversation, I started learning from the things they said. I wasn’t the mentor anymore, I was one of the learners. And I learned so much.

I learned that one daughter was really struggling with a boy in her church class who looked for every opportunity to say mean things about her.

I learned that a son was thinking seriously about dropping a commonwealth co-op class because the memorization was very hard for him.

I learned that a daughter had been trying to tell me for months that she really wanted to attend a summer youth conference and we had already missed the registration deadlines—I’d been too busy to notice her hints.

I sat there with my jaw dropped. These were things I could really help with, now that I knew about them! We were able to address each of these and come to great solutions. Thank goodness I decided to truly, genuinely, listen that evening.

The Crème de la Crème

Most dads probably aren’t as oblivious as I found out I was, but as I let the tangents roll, I learned so much. I couldn’t believe it. None of these things had anything to do with that night’s reading topic. At least not directly.

But in one way they had everything to do with it: they were about real needs by real people. And that’s what the classics and education are all about, after all.

I’ve learned to let the tangents come. The more, the better! They are a vital part of any real learning. And of any real family discussion.

I still struggle when we’re in a family conversation on a specific book and people start going off in “unauthorized” directions. Maybe my maleness (or maybe it’s just a bad habit) will never be quite comfortable just enjoying the journey instead of focusing on getting to the destination, or fixing the next problem.

But I’ve learned something invaluable: When I do sit back and let the tangents wend their way through the family’s evening, good things always happen. Always. And if this helps even one other dad embrace tangents and be a better father and listener, I’ll be so glad our friends suggested that I share this message.

So, when a tangent comes, perk up and pay attention. That’s where the really good stuff is often found!