Game Theory with Children

My daughters are becoming more complex! After last week’s trip into Hot Mess Land, we’re getting real with PSYCHOLOGY this week. Every parent out there, whether they realize it or not, is in a constant game of psychological warfare. At every stage of life, kids are pressing boundaries and pushing buttons: the perfect recipe for the loss of sanity! Anyways, if you haven’t heard of game theory, it is the study of models and scenarios where individuals involved have conflicts of interests as they are pressed into decision-making. Game theory analyzes the supposedly rational decisions made by people with competing priorities and motivations. What in the world does this have to do ornery toddlers, behaviorally-challenged (politically correct!) adolescents, and mystifying teenagers? Everything, so bear with me as we look through a few examples to clarify. It appears thus far that I acquired my MBA in order to write stories about poop (what a great investment!), so please forgive this indulgence into a little side alley of a mix of intelligentsia and parenting.

We have been issuing and enforcing timeouts with my toddler daughter Eliza for several months now, but just recently the little rugrat flipped a switch on our threats. She does not enjoy timeouts whatsoever, so the mere mention of a seat in the corner is usually enough to straighten up her behavior. Last week when she was acting out, I said “Eliza, do you want to go to timeout?” My adorable monster replied “Yes.” “No, Eliza you don’t understand what daddy is saying. If you don’t start listening, I’m putting you in timeout! You’re sitting in the corner!” She calmly came back with “Okay.” I didn’t know whether to lose me my mind or start laughing; I followed through with the timeout (which she still didn’t enjoy) but it’s just kept happening. “Yeah, timeout.” What does she not understand? SHE’S IN TROUBLE!

These moments led me a few definitions and scenarios that are present in entry-level discussions of Game Theory. The first is the concept of zero sum and non-zero sum games. A zero sum game is something we’re all familiar with; if I beat you at poker, I win and you lose. Your money flows directly towards me. In a non-zero sum game, we can manage to make decisions that ultimately helps us both. When it comes to my kids, I’m still struggling to create the non-zero situations where we both may prosper. As it currently stands, it’s either me or my toddler; there is no family problem solving that results in mutual benefits.

One of the many thought exercises of Game Theory is the game of Chicken. As you might be imagining right now, the game of Chicken typically refers to two cars coming from opposite directions down a single path. As the driver, your best case scenario is the opposite individual yielding the road. The worst outcome, naturally, is neither driver yielding with the end result of flaming carnage. That carnage is quite the normative result for parenting my girls. Where my daughter once gave in to secure the second best outcome (yielding is better than crashing but worse than the other person yielding first), she now has no problem burning the entire outcome down to the ground. Eliza doesn’t win but neither does daddy.

As a parent, you have several moments each day (or even each hour) where you are faced with divergent paths of parenting. How quickly does a lighthearted suggestion turn into a demon-voiced demand? How do you tread on that thin line between grace and anger? Before the last few months, the debate about how we parent really boiled down solely to our initial reaction. As the kiddos age, however, we now know each and every decision we make will be matched by a decision she makes. We used to know how our daughter would respond to different disciplines, incentives, and affections; now, we’re back at the beginning where we know nothing. She’s scattered all over the map on how she’ll respond; the only common thread being that my wife and I will be exhausted and frustrated regardless!

I never really considered how much psychology and parenting co-mingle. Then my first daughter turned 2 and now it’s constant head games and multiple attempts at subtle manipulation by both sides. We’ll be back tomorrow with more fun on the topic…in the meantime, I’ll do my best to maintain my sanity so I’m still writing coherently by the end of the week.

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