New book brings science, game theory to parenting

"The Gaming Theorist's Guide to Parenting" book cover.

Credit: Kevin Zollman Facebook

Credit: Kevin Zollman Facebook

"The Gaming Theorist's Guide to Parenting" book cover.

Is it possible to use aspects of game theory to perfect a parent's ability to negotiate with children? Paul Raeburn, the award-winning author of four books including "Do Fathers Matter," and Carnegie Mellon University philosophy professor Kevin Zollman think so. It's the premise behind their new book, "The Game Theorist's Guide to Parenting."

Game theory is the branch of economics committed to establishing agreement between decision-makers. It examines how parties interact to achieve compromise.

Raeburn and Zollman demonstrate how the same strategies successfully applied to business deals and politics, like the Ultimatum Game, can be effectively used to solve parenting problems, such as persuading kids to adhere to homework routines, dividing up toys and more.

For example, two siblings want to be the first to try out a new video game system. While it's easy for parents to divide time, how can they fairly divide the "first time?" Typical parenting guides suggest actions like coin tosses to settle the dispute. Game theorists suggest that parents use the auction system where each child announces how much they'd be willing to "pay" for an item or experience. The payment can be in the form of chores, according to Raeburn and Zollman.

Game theory parenting empowers kids to make thoughtful decisions and comprehend the consequences to self and others.

"I think it's interesting that some human relationships can be explained by mathematics. That's what made my co-author, Kevin Zollman, and I think this would be interesting to apply to parenting," Raeburn, who has five children, said.

The book differs from other parenting guides that rely on psychological research and the authors' parenting experiences.

"Experiences are good, but they are not the same as taking a scientific look at what really happens between parents and children," Raeburn explained. "And that's what we have done."

Each chapter addresses issues that present at a child's various developmental stages, beginning at age five and continuing through adolescence.

Raeburn said parents will learn how to help their children cooperate, how to treat them fairly and how to do a better job making family decisions. The children can "use these techniques themselves as they mature into young adults," he said.

Zollman, a game-theory researcher, said the book combines game theory's mathematical modeling with social behavior as a way of bettering the relationship between parent and child.

"In the process of writing the book, I came to have a new appreciation for the extreme difficulty of parenting," Zollman, who doesn't have children yet, said. "I respected parents before, but I'm now amazed by what they do. So many situations don't seem to have good solutions. And, even if a situation does have a good solution, you might be so tired, overworked, or frustrated that you don't see it."

Zollman was a difficult kid, he said, and he credits his my parents for doing a fantastic job raising him and "giving me a great model to follow."

Parents who read the book will learn that it's always important to have a plan, according to Zollman.

"We tell the story of the angry father who threatens to turn the car around if the kids don't behave. We all know the story, and we all know how it works out. The problem was that the father didn't think ahead: what would he do if his threat didn't work? Would he really cancel the vacation? Game theory tells you to think ahead: plan what you're going to do several steps down the road," he said.

In that chapter, the authors talk about how to design punishments that are easier than abandoning that needed vacation. Zollman added that the book's negotiating advice goes way beyond "just promises of punishments."

The plans parents make in each case will be different, according to Zollman, and the big lesson is to think about what you're going to do in various situations and have a plan in place.

Carefully created economic approaches are given, along with incentives and bargaining to help parents successfully raise children. According to Raeburn and Zollman, the advice can also be used beyond parenting, such as with friends and coworkers.