Curious Parents

Better Parenting through Game Theory

By now you know about the Prisoner's Dilemma. It involves prison sentences and terrible crimes — it's not the most child-friendly philosophical exercise, depending on how well the child understands the concept of "probation". But in "The Game Theorist's Guide to Parenting", a philosophy professor and a journalist (and father of five) presented exactly how the judicious application of game theory can make parenthood run smoother.

Teaching Cooperation, One Game at a Time

Let's start with the basics. How on earth does the Prisoner's Dilemma apply to raising children? Simple. It teaches them that working together can be better than just looking out for yourself. For the prisoners, that means cooperating and earning their freedom — but if either one betrays the other, then both end up imprisoned.

For kids, the stakes should be a little lower than life in prison. Let's say you need a bedroom cleaned up, pronto. Offer your two children a deal: if the room is cleaned in 30 minutes, then they each get an hour of video games. But if it's not, then they're both banned from playing for the rest of the day. If they both work together, they can get it done, but if one slacks off, both are punished. It shouldn't take long for that method to cement cooperation in their minds.

Parents might also keep the peace by introducing concepts such as "auctions" to make choosing privileges a non-zero-sum game. Let's say you're taking the family out to eat. Jorge wants Five Guys, but Maria wants sushi burritos. Instead of letting one choose and leaving it at that, give the privilege of choosing the restaurant a cost — perhaps your kids can bid chores that they are willing to do to win the food fight.

Mind Games

Sometimes it's not about deducing the mathematically correct answer and acting accordingly, but understanding the psychological reasons for different behaviors. So if your kids aren't responding to your threats, it might be because you never follow through on them. Time to change that. Instead of saying, "I'll turn this car around," which isn't really believable and isn't much of a threat in the first place, say something that they might believe you'd actually do. And then, if necessary, do it.

Love lentil soup? Threaten your kids with a week of lentil soup dinners unless they settle down, and that's a win-win for you. Either you get a quieter crowd or you get all the lentils you could ever want. Or instead, threaten to take them to their grandparents instead of to the playground. The important thing is that your kids believe you'll do it — and that you don't let your sympathy get in the way of your follow through.

You could also try a strategy forcing your kids to lie, if you suspect they have already been less-than-truthful. Basically, you pry into the suspicious story, compounding the guilt they feel and forcing them to think on the fly. Eventually, hopefully, they will realize that sticking to the truth makes everything easier.

Want to find out more about how the kinds of games that philosophers talk about all day long apply to parenting? Check out Kevin Zollman and Paul Raeburn's "The Game Theorist's Guide to Parenting". If you make a purchase from that link, you help to support Curiosity.

The Prisoner's Dilemma

Written by Reuben Westmaas October 19, 2017

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.