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#1: What Game Theory can Teach us about Parenting

The authors of "The Game Theorist's Guide to Parenting" argue that if game theory can be applied to nuclear war, corporate takeovers, and political standoffs, then it can help us settle family disputes, fairly allocate rights and resources, and create a culture of fairness at home.
#1: What Game Theory can Teach us about Parenting
Game theory can be applied to wide variety of situations and problems. 

As a policy and legislative analyst, I sometimes turn to game theory to help figure out difficult policy problems.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with game theory, it's the mathematical science of strategic decision-making; game theory attempts to make sense of how people interact in strategic situations.

Think about it like this:

A game is an interaction between two people where both people have their own interests and are trying to achieve their own ends – they’re trying to achieve the best outcome for themselves in the game.

Game theory helps us make the best decisions possible, based on what we think another person will do.

The authors of "The Game Theorist's Guide to Parenting" argue that if game theory can be applied to nuclear war, corporate takeovers, and political standoffs, then it can help us settle family disputes, fairly allocate rights and resources, and create a culture of fairness at home.

The book is filled with lots of interesting examples of how game theory can be applied to parenting.

For example, suppose mom and dad bring a new dog home to three ecstatic kids.

After a few minutes, the smiles and tears of joy quickly give way to yelling and arguing over who gets to name the dog.

Unlike a cake, the dog is indivisible – it can only get one name.

Some might say, “just flip a coin.”

However, game theorists dislike this solution because it doesn’t produce fair outcomes for all – at least two children will be envious of the winner of the coin toss.

So, how do we address this flaw?


Game theory tells us if we have items or rights that can’t be fairly divided, we should assign items/rights to the person who desires them the most.

Sealed-bid auctions are recommended.

In the above case, each child is instructed to make a closed bid using their allowance for the right to name the dog, whoever values naming the dog most, wins.

This is a simplified example, but the point is that auctions are effective tools to promote fair outcomes that don’t leave kids feeling shortchanged.

Another common problem parents face is kids competing to get out of chores or refusing to do them at all, leaving their parents to do all the work.

For example, suppose three children refuse to clean up a big room full of toys.

Game theorists call these situations prisoners dilemmas.

Each child has a private incentive to avoid work; however, when everyone follows their own interests, the group is worse off than if every individual ignored their private incentives and worked together.

Parents can make threats, but there’s a more elegant solution.

Game theorists argue we should teach children to break up the toy clean-up task into a series of small interactions, where each child cooperates with the other one, but only on the condition that the other child cooperated with them before.

So, instead of dad saying, “clean up this room or else” he should say:

Here’s the deal: each of you take turns putting away one toy – you both need to make a deal with each other, that if one of you puts away a toy, then the other must.

By taking a big task and breaking it into a series of small interactions, you make it feasible for the kids to cooperate.

The US government used this same approach with respect to nuclear disarmament negotiations during the cold war and it was highly effective.

Game theory can also help parents fairly divide the labour of raising children.

Suppose my wife and I have a week of shuttling kids to band practice, sporting events, and doctors appointments. I may ask my wife to separate all the weekly obligations into two piles that she thinks are equal.

By this logic, she will be satisfied with either pile.

Now, the piles aren’t identical, one will have more yard work or less dishwashing. However, they will be equal in her eyes.

Now, she should ask me to choose the pile of work I want. When I choose, I pick the pile that represents the least amount of work for me.

Mom chooses the piles and dad picks.

This game is backed up by a LOT of math that proves this process always produces optimal, fair outcomes.

The application of game theory to parenting is new but has proven to promote fairness and reduce conflict in households. It’s evidence-based parenting.

By studying how children interact in various situations, parents can create rules and an environment to encourage specific outcomes without necessarily needing to intervene.

According to experts, how we apply game theory to parenting depends on where our child is on the development spectrum. For example, with self-absorbed toddlers, it’s about appealing to their self-interests in games. With pre-adolescents, it’s about appealing to their conscience.

Game theory isn’t about deception, it’s not about playing mind games, it’s about being smart in dealings with other people, understanding how people behave and devising a strategy to produce the right outcome that’s beneficial for everyone.

The examples and discussion that I presented above only scratch the surface of the usefulness of game theory in day-to-day life. Indeed, there are mountains of books out there about game theory and you don't need children to reap the benefits of applying game theory to your life.