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Teaching practical prophecy
By Orson Scott Card June 16, 2011

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 two- and three-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 cooky 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 ten, 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?"

They obvious answer is, they weren't thinking at all. Or rather, they were thinking, "If I do this, I will get what I want," without thinking of what else might happen.

Whenever we do something, it's with a practical prophecy in mind:

If I go to work and do my job, I'll get paid.

If I follow the recipe, dinner will be delicious.

If I ask a parent, I might get the money to do the cool thing I want to do.

If I rinse the pans as soon as I pour their contents into the serving dishes, I won't have to scrub off a bunch of stuck-on gorp an hour later.

If I pull up the weeds now when they're little, the yard will look nicer with a lot less work later.

We act in order to bring about predictable consequences. But we also teach our children to extend their prophecies beyond the immediate goal, to include the things that might go wrong.

The acid test is the driver's license. We take our kids out driving and constantly have to say, "Look out for that car -- it might not stop." "See how the cars are bunched up ahead? Slow down now so you don't have an emergency stop later."

It begins years before, when we teach them to watch where they're going when they walk through a crowd.

And finally it pays off -- we see them looking ahead, anticipating possibilities, and responding to things that haven't happened yet, but which might happen.

Only when we see our kids acting prudently do we begin to believe that we have succeeded at the job of parenting: These kids really are going to muddle through without our constantly having to remind them, prompt them, prophesy for them. They do their own practical prophesying now.

It occurs to me that half the commandments, warnings, and prophecies in the scriptures and in conference talks are really the same thing: Practical prophecies about what is very likely to happen to us if we don't look ahead.

Aren't most of the commandments at the level of "Don't run into the street!"?

God commands us not to do things that will destroy us. They won't all destroy us immediately, of course. But God, with his foresight and experience, warns us of the terrible consequences so we can avoid them when it's easy to do so.

Practical prophecy is about things that are likely or possible -- not certainties. How different is God's foreknowledge? In my next column, I'll look at several different ways people have speculated about how God knows the future.

Copyright © 2011 by Orson Scott Card

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