Parenting Success Using Game Theory

Parenting requires strategy, and game theory is basically the science of strategy. Applying one to the other may provide for a win-win parenting scenario.

What’s Game Theory?

Game theory is based on mathematics and economy, but can be applied to anything in life from playing checkers, to parenting, to war strategy. It’s the action of analyzing a particular situation and creating a strategy. The strategy is to get the participants to act in a certain matter that will derive your desired outcome.

A Unique Parenting Style

Using game theory in parenting can help siblings to get along better—even without you interfering. The idea is to use classic strategies so that your kids will behave kindly, fairly, and learn true compromise. These are lessons that can create peace at home, but also hopefully help your children become successful adults.

Fair is Fair

Harvard University psychologist Elizabeth S. Spelke believes “cooperation is part of our biology.” Children will share if others share with them. They learn naturally how to negotiate—and manipulate—in order to get what they want.

In the book, The Game Theorist’s Guide to Parenting, the authors site, scientifically, how we can use game theory for everyone’s benefit. Not only will our kids learn how to get along better, but parents will reap rewards too. For example, the “tit for tat” strategy teaches kids how to reach fair agreements. They learn that “if you do this for me now, I will do that for you later.”

Classic Example

One strategy in game theory is called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. It’s based on two criminals separated after they’re both caught. They can either confess to the crime, blame the other, or keep quiet. Siblings figure out how to cooperate with with one another by learning from getting tattled on. If as a parent, you give each child the same reward (or same punishment), the children will figure out how to act as a team.

Kevin Zollman is a game theorist and associate professor of philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University. His co-author, Paul Raeburn is an award-winning writer of four other books. Together, they penned this book, offering tactics to help raise kids “earn” what they want in life.

Other Parenting Moves

Using game theory, you get the children to complete a task together. For example, you ask them to put all the dirty clothes in the hamper. If they do, they’ll get a brownie after dinner. If one does it, and the other doesn’t, tell them they both must complete the task in order to earn. Watch the other pitch in real quick. If neither child helps, start cleaning up the clothes yourself and say, “Looks like I’m the only one getting a brownie tonight.” Again, they will both kick into gear.

Game theory can help teach your child how not to lie, how to comply with non-preferred directions, and learn from the school of hard knocks. This style of parenting may not be for everyone. However, it may be worth incorporating some new strategies now and then.

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