WSJ: Can’t get your children to eat their vegetables or clean up their toys? Game theory offers some solutions.

A key lesson in game theory, says Barry Nalebuff, a professor at the Yale School of Management, is to understand the perspective of the other players. It isn’t about what you would do in another person’s shoes, he says; it’s about what they would do in their shoes.

So how to deal with the problem of dividing a piece of cake into three equal shares? Try this: After the first child cuts and the second one chooses, each child further cuts his or her own slice into thirds. The third child then chooses a third of a slice from each plate. It might get messy, but all three should feel fairly treated.

Here are a few more practical, game theory-based solutions to everyday parenting challenges.

The Pickup Dilemma: It’s time to clean up, but neither of your kids will budge. Kevin Zollman, an associate professor of philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University, suggests applying what’s known as the repeated prisoners’ dilemma, a “tit for tat” strategy, to make cleanup more palatable. Instead of saying, “Put your toys away,” Prof. Zollman says you may get better cooperation if you go one toy at a time: One child puts a toy away, then the other puts a toy away; repeat until the room is cleaned.

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You can also try having the children alternate days instead. The trick is to keep the game going—or else the pact will come undone, and no one will want to be the last to clean up. Then you’ll be back to cleaning up yourself.

The Kale Conundrum: The father of a picky eater I know uses a clever tactic to get the child to eat a variety of foods. When he puts one type of food on his son’s plate, the child often refuses it. But if he ups the initial price to four different foods, his son will eat two, feeling that he’s “won” the negotiation by eating only half of what’s asked.

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One thought on “WSJ: Game Theory Secrets for Parents – strategy for parents

  1. Great post and awesome insights, relating game theory with parenting, great post indeed, those ” everyday solutions” are very good, very interesting 🙂

    Best regards,
    Pedro Calado

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