The Game Theorist’s Guide to Parenting

by Paul Raeburn and Kevin Zollman

Excerpts from the book; notes by JFR

Theoretical parenting techniques derived from mathematics & statistics. Not so much of a “guide,” the techniques are largely untested or minimally tested. Maybe there will be a more comprehensive revised edition someday?

In game theory you need to know:

Game theory can be applied to find the minimal possible loss for a worst case scenario.

The “Ultimatum Game” - player A is given $(some amount of money) and must offer player B some amount. If player B refuses the offer, player A gets nothing. While in theory player B will always walk away with more than they started if they agree, the “optimal” play here seems to always be to split 50/50.

Abstract terms are assigned to nonmonetary and even subjective transactions (feelings, satisfaction, etc).

Age 8 is supposedly when the concept of “fairness” is fully understood.

Many games are considered to be “zero-sum” when one player’s gain is equivalent to another player’s loss. (However, I would argue that in a family dynamic, no games are truly zero-sum, due to the interconnectedness of the family and the inevitability of future games that will be played by the family. See “Nonzero” by Robert Wright.)

Technique 1: I cut, you choose

(Questions not addressed in the book: Does the cutter envision an outcome? How can a child be taught non-attachment?)

(Unmentioned alternative: assign numbers, in secret, to options, and each player chooses numbers. Is randomness a good life lesson?)

Technique 2: Balanced Alternation

When two players are given alternating choices of several options, alternating ABABAB (player A chooses, player B chooses) is less fair than ABBAAB, because the opportunity to choose first is significantly valuable.

With three (or more) choosers, try ABC CBA CBA ABC.

Technique 3: Auctions

Can be used to make decisions that affect the entire family. Requires several decisions to be made within a given timeframe, so that there is an opportunity cost to winning an auction (will probably not be able to win the next auction). (The book talks about the unfairness of using money in auctions because parents will have more; I would suggest using proxy money, replenished either after a set amount of time, or after everyone’s funds have been exhausted.)

Auctions are especially useful for indivisible prizes.

Suggested types of auctions:

Other types:

Technique 4: Credible Threats

Issue threats that you would want (or at least be willing) to implement.

Decision/consequence trees can be mapped out:

Actor 1 (child)

Option 1A (“good” behavior)


Option 1B (“bad” behavior)

Actor 2 (parent)

Option 2A (some sort of punishment)


Option 2B (no punishment)


If Option 2A is too painful for Actor 2, Option 2B will always occur and there is no cost for Actor 1 to choose Option 1B. If Option 2A is easy for Actor 2 to choose, Option 1A becomes the best option for Actor 1.

Technique 5: Pre-committed Consequences

Similar to #4, if a specific consequence will always happen, the decision tree is simplified. Example: many sports teams have academic requirements. If your grades are below a specific level, you’re not allowed on the team.

Technique 6: Rewards are stronger than punishments

…because we tend to risk punishment more than risk the loss of a reward.

Technique 7: Monitoring (Trust and Verify)

Deception is a useful tool. You can reduce its effectiveness by making it easy to spot.

Perfect monitoring = communication that cannot be faked. Actually look at the report that someone has supposedly finished. (Frame it as interest rather than as distrust.)

Handicap principle: potential mates (in mating rituals) must be extra special if they are still alive despite an explicit handicap (example: peacocks with huge tails). Therefore a giant tail on a peacock is considered an “honest signal” of their superiority, because a peacock who grows a larger tail than he can sustain will be eaten.

Reduce benefit of lying (“do you have any homework?”), improve payoff for telling the truth; 2 hours of set studying per night, no matter how much homework. (Perhaps a daily group study session for the entire family, where everyone is learning about something, homework or no.)

Book says to “just live with dishonesty.” (I say: use opportunities for dishonesty to model helpful behaviors instead – communal study time, spreadsheets of homework assignments/tasks, clearly defined and recorded chores/goals/rules/etc)

(Unanswered question: how to teach children about lying while fostering trust within the family? Perhaps with board/card games?)

Technique 8: Indirect reciprocity

Studies apparently show that children who are witnessed being generous to others are more likely to be treated generously by children, even if they were not the recipients.

In models of the Repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma, where the Prisoner’s Dilemma is played over and over, the “Tit-for-Tat” strategy where you start cooperatively and subsequently do whatever the other player did previously is the most successful strategy. Ultimately, cooperation leads to greater rewards, which applies to children/siblings as well; but the parent may need to initiate/kickstart this cooperation, setting in motion a pattern of indirect reciprocity.

Technique 9: Contracts

When appropriate, give children choices about how parenting resources (time, energy) are applied. (I’m taking some liberties here. I think this is kind of what the book is suggesting but never gets around to saying: sometimes what a parent thinks is important isn’t important to the child, and children often don’t have the awareness that parents aren’t unlimited sources of energy and time.)

Moral hazard: an incentive that encourages reckless/irresponsible/undesirable behavior (“bailing out” someone who has made poor decisions to get to where they are now).

When to “bail out” your kids?

Self-enforcing contracts

Empathy = other-regarding preferences

Technique 10: Decision by Random Dictator

Condorcet’s paradox: Multi-stage voting will lead to different outcomes depending on order of choices (((A vs B) vs C) = C) (((A vs C) vs B) = B)

Randomly choosing an option (or a person who will make the choice, hence a random dictator) is often superior to voting when repeated many times (because voting systems can be manipulated)