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A Quick Primer On How To Use Game Theory As A Parenting Strategy

If you’re familiar with the term “zero-sum game,” or mutually assured destruction, you’re familiar with some of the concepts of game theory. It’s not about winning Monopoly and Candy Land, it’s the study of mathematical models that deal with conflict and cooperation. So, basically what you do with your kid daily. Author Paul Raeburn and game theorist Kevin Zollman teamed up to write, The Game Theorist’s Guide To Parenting, a book that explores how this theory from economics, politics, and poker can possibly benefit the most negotiation-intense pursuit on the planet: Parenting.

If you have younger kids, you don’t need to be told that they act mostly in their own self interest. It’s all me, me, me and I want, I want, I want. But sometime around year 8, kids start to evolve into little people whose sense of fairness extends beyond their Underoos. How you apply game theory as a parent depends on where along that spectrum your kid is — with self absorbed toddlers, it’s about appealing to their self interest. With more worldly pre-adolescents, it’s about appealing to their nascent conscience. In either case, it’s about leveraging rewards and consequences.

How To Use Game Theory On Your KidsFlickr / Trina Alexander

If you morally object to the idea of rewarding kids for doing things they should be doing, Raeburn’s ideas won’t be of much use to you, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work. After all, even grown-ups will do anything for a free t-shirt.

Reward Vs. Punishment
A big part of game theory is how reward changes the outcome of events. If you tell your preschooler that they have to clean their room or no dessert, you haven’t removed a reward — you’ve taken away something they were expecting. If you tell them to clean their room and you’ll take them to the toy store, that’s unexpected and therefore a real reward. If your kid doesn’t get juiced by toy store trips … you may not need parenting advice.

Use An Auction Model
Auctions are a way that you raise and lower the value of the reward you’re offering, because everyone wants to feel like the work they’re doing is worth the price of doing it. Since you’re the parent, you set the terms. You say something like, “get into bed and we can read 3 books.”

If they reject those terms, find out what they’ll accept. Won’t get into bed for 3 books? How about sitting on the chair for 2 books? Raeburn says that just because you’re auctioning doesn’t mean you’re caving to their demands — you’re matching the reward to the action. And, as with all auctions, there’s a floor where you’ll take the lot off the block. As in, no bed, no nothing. Remember, this technique requires you to talk really fast.

How To Use Game Theory On Your KidsFlickr / John Morgan

The Prisoner’s Dilemma
The original example uses 2 prisoners but for your purposes let’s say it’s about your kids. Let’s say they conspire to eat all the cookies you just baked, which you discover because you wanted a cookie. If your son tells on his little sister, she gets punished and he gets off. If they both tell on each other, they both get punished. And if they just blame the dog, each just gets a disapproving look.

Raeburn says that people behave differently if they know they’re going to meet again. Of course, if your son had no chance of seeing his sister again (possibly his dream scenario) he would have no problem throwing her under the bus. But because they live together, this is going to come up time and again. If he sees that she’s going to retaliate each time and both of them get in trouble, they’re more likely to blame the dog the next time.

That’s theoretically bad for you because now you don’t know who ate the cookies (and the dog isn’t talking). But it’s critical for your kids’ development, because they’re learning how their own self interest can be served by cooperating with someone else.

Kids Inherently Know What’s Fair
Picture a bunch of unruly 4-year-olds at a birthday party. There’s a pinata everyone is swinging at. What kind of pinata? Doesn’t matter — let’s say traditional donkey. When that sucker breaks open all those kids are going to scramble for the candy. If one comes up with an armful of Jolly Ranchers and the other kids get a single Tootsie Roll each, odds are that candy baron isn’t going to feel bad about the other partygoers coming up short. In a me, me, me mindset (which all these 4-year-olds have), the baron’s psyched, everyone else is bummed, and that’s that.

How To Use Game Theory On Your KidsFlickr / Clappstar

So while kids have always known what unfair looks like (because they tell you a hundred times a day “That’s not fair!”), it isn’t until around 8 or so that they develop “inequity aversion”, or the preference for fairness over selfishness. “Around age 8 they begin to feel guilty, and that’s where you can see the older kid giving back the younger one,” says Raeburn. Until then, your kid is probably going to be the mayor of Selfishtown; population one.

Cooperation Is Key
Once your kid displays an inequity aversion, game theory starts to provide you with some particularly powerful parenting tools. Because now cooperation — that vague notion your 2 little prisoners developed during the cookie episode — can be explained as a behavior that appeals to your newly enlightened kid’s self of fairness and serves their own self interest. Basically, you can point out to your kid that, by making other kids not feel bad, they’re ensuring that they themselves will feel good. This is when they’re ready to grasp the idea of a “win-win” situation.

When Rewards Don’t Matter
Eventually, everyone gets to the point where they’ll do things for their own sake, and not because there’s a toy waiting for them if they do. That is the moment your kid says with pride, “I cleaned my room” and doesn’t expect jack. Or, they do, but it’s more nuanced. “In game theory terms it’s the promise of more cooperation,” says Raeburn. “If that other person shares back then the two parties reinforce one another.”

Congratulations, your kid just learned the Golden Rule.