Arthur C. Clarke’s Three Laws for Parents of Imaginative Kids

Image by Dreamworks Studios
Image by Dreamworks Studios
  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

The “Three Laws of Robotics.” Whether through Isaac Asimov or Will Smith, every geek parent probably has at least a passing knowledge of these often used, frequently amended, and regularly broken laws of the sci-fi world. However, there is another 20th century godfather of science fiction whose “Three Laws” are not only less likely to end in global enslavement, but more useful to us as parents.

More than 40 years ago, Arthur C. Clarke wrote, and later revised, an essay entitled Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination, in which he made three declarations that would later be referred to as “Clarke’s Three Laws.” While not specific to parents and children, they are quite applicable to how we can purposefully encourage our young geeks, as well as serve as a warning to how we can unintentionally discourage them.

Clarke’s First Law: Recognizing Our Own Ignorance

Law One: When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

After the recent Android version rolled out to my Nexus 5, I was frustrated to find that there was no longer a “silent” option. I raged about it for a bit and even spent a few minutes on Google trying to fix it, only to find a number of other people just as upset as I was. This was a big deal! I used my phone as an alarm clock, so turning it off at night was not an option, but neither was having it vibrate at three in the morning because someone wanted to e-mail me about Oprah’s new secret weight loss drug.

It would have been easy for my son, who has the same phone, to hear my complaints and assume, “Well, Dad’s pretty smart when it comes to these things. I guess it can’t be done.” Instead, because he had no preconceived notions of how Android was supposed to work, and had always worked, he poked around and discovered the priority settings, which did exactly what I needed. I was so trapped in how I understood things were done, and should be done, that I had never stopped to consider how else they might be done.

This can be a particularly difficult issue with those of us who are more technologically inclined. Because we have a handle on how most things work, it is easy to assume that our knowledge is complete when, in fact, technology progresses much faster than we can possibly keep up. By acknowledging our own ignorance, we are more likely to be open to new possibilities. Telling a child something can’t be done just because you don’t know how is not only detrimental to their development, it also makes you inapproachable when they have more questions in the future. Not to mention, you lose credibility when the kid discovers how to do it on their own. Keep in mind that “I don’t know.” is a perfectly reasonable response to a child’s question. “I don’t know. Let’s find out.” is even better.

Clarke’s Second Law: Mission Impossible

Law Two: The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

Like many kids, my son went through an inventor stage. He loved the movie Meet the Robinsons and was constantly collecting spare bits of plastic, wire, and electronics and tinkering with them in his room. After reading a futuristic novel about vehicles that traveled along using electromagnets, he came to me with the idea that he was going to build what amounted to a hoverboard. In what was not my first, and certainly not my last, mistake as a parent, I sat down and explained why what he wanted to do was impossible. We researched how maglev worked, and how you can’t just float above the ground using magnets, but have to have a powered track and alternating current to push and pull the train.

A few years later, the Hendo Hoverboard came out. Ouch.

While I was technically correct in what was possible at the time, I effectively squashed the idea that the “impossible” idea he had could ever be done. I fell into the trap of assuming because it couldn’t be done, it would never be done. Meanwhile, others like my son, whose imagination and unwillingness to accept the limits of their current reality weren’t tying them down, were busy creating the future and redefining the boundaries of possible and impossible.

Clarke’s Third Law: Demystifying Technology

Law Three: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

There is a point in the film Real Steel, the near-futuristic Rocky/Over the Top mashup starring Hugh Jackman, when Max is working fervently on his robot at his dad’s workbench after an all-night, caffeine-fueled frenzy, pulling components out, running them across the screen, punching buttons. Here’s this little kid performing tasks that, to my son living in 2015, are just short of magic. In equal parts envy and disbelief, he commented, “Yeah, like a kid could do that.”

Not noticing a prime parenting opportunity had passed me by (in my defense, I was watching a giant robot dance), I nodded my head in agreement. Later, however, I realized that the boy wasn’t some advanced engineering genius. He was merely using the tools at his disposal. It was no more complicated than a kid today adding a background in Photoshop or creating a school fundraising flyer in Word. Cooler, of course. It was a giant killer robot. More technologically advanced? Absolutely. But in the end, it was still just a mammal using a tool—the futuristic Hollywood version of a chimp with a stick digging termites.

I mention this because there is a belief among some, particularly of older generations, that kids who can master a tool are some wunderkind Ender-Wiggin-meets-Jimmy-Neutron super-geniuses. I’m not belittling the value of the skill, but simply pointing out that a kid in 2020 swapping out a voice-recognition module on his fighting robot is just as impressive as a kid in 2012 adding an app to his iPad, a kid in 1985 loading a game from cassette on his Commodore, or a kid in 1905 changing the tire on his bicycle. The danger in allowing our children to aggrandize the accomplishments of one child, or doing so ourselves, is that it suggests those accomplishments are unreachable to “normal” kids. We should be supporting and encouraging our children to try new things, even if at first they seem like wizardry. Once they learn the tools and begin using them to express their own ingenuity and creativity, when they master fingerpaints or SketchBook Pro to create a beautiful landscape, or when they master the pencil or the word processor to write an imaginative short story, that’s when the real magic happens.

Image by: Randy Slavey and Dylan Slavey
Image by: Randy Slavey and Dylan Slavey
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