Orson Scott Card: In the Village: Teaching practical prophecy

Published: Thursday, June 16 2011 6:00 a.m. MDT

Have you taught your children to foretell the future?

No — not that business with the Magic 8-Ball. That's a party game.

I'm talking about the serious business of practical prophecy. Teaching it to kids is one of the main jobs that parents do.

You start with your 2- and 3-year-olds. "Don't run into the street! Stop at the curb and look both ways."

Now here comes the prophecy part: "Because if you just run into the street, you'll get hit by a car."

You're not telling them that they'll get hit by a car every time. It's a pretty safe bet that every single day, hundreds or thousands of little kids run into the street and don't get killed.

But it's also a pretty safe bet that if your kid always runs into the street without looking, his odds of becoming somebody's hood ornament increase to a point approaching certainty.

So when you say, "If you run into the street without stopping and looking, you're going to get hit by a car," you are prophesying, not the immediate result, but the probable result of repeated infractions.

And for all you know, the collision might happen the very first time. You drill that prophecy into your children's heads, over and over. Until they finally have the habit of curb-stopping and looking-both-ways. Only then can you begin to trust them.

That's how you start to teach them the skill of practical prophecy. You point out over and over that certain actions are likely to have certain results — and that human beings are expected to predict the results of their actions.

When you think about it, we're doing practical prophecy every single day, a hundred times a day. "Why do I have to go to school today?"

"Because, my dear, it's the law, and if you don't go to school, the authorities will blame us as your parents, and if we keep letting you skip school, eventually they'll take you away from us and put you in a home that does make you go to school."

Or you might use a different prophecy: "You have to go to school so you get good grades, so you can get into college and earn a valuable and expensive college diploma, so you can get a well-paying job, so that when we get old, you can afford to put us in the very best quality retirement home."

We spin out causal chains for our children, telling them stories of what will happen, what might happen, what did happen. "Do you understand why I'm taking away the car keys?"

"Because I didn't call you before I changed my plans and drove to a different place from where I said I'd go."

"Do you understand why we have that rule?"

Sigh. "So that if something bad happens and I don't get home on time, you'll know where to come looking for me." Rolling of eyes.

"I'm taking the car keys to help you learn. For your own safety — and for your parents' sanity."

We expect kids to learn practical prophecy — that ability to spin out the likely consequences of their actions — at a very early age.

You come into the kitchen. The cookie jar is broken on the floor. The guilty child is still standing on the kitchen counter, trying to think up a plausible story. What are the words you say?

Nine times out of 10, you ask some variation on: "What did you think would happen?"

They were playing ball inside the house and broke something. They came inside with muddy shoes and tracked filth all over the carpets. They played all evening and only at bedtime do they remember their homework assignment. All over the world, parents say the same thing:

"What were you thinking?"

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