Game Theory and Child-Rearing

A reader named Clark Case, who lives in Aurora, Ohio, and works as a product manager, writes in with a child-rearing observation. His kids are 7 and 4; his wife is a homemaker:

My wife came up with a punishment method for my kids that I thought that you (and perhaps your blog readers) would find interesting.

When the kids get to tussling and or screaming at each other in such a way that she is finding aggravating, she will send them to their respective rooms with the stipulation that they can come out when they both agree to apologize to each other.

Game theory, I suppose, would argue that they should immediately apologize to one another to minimize the period of detention. What seems to happen, though is that one will think that the other deserves some extended detention and will give up freedom himself in order to see that the other gets it.

Am interested to hear other game-theoretic attempts at child-rearing …

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  1. Stephen says:

    I used to think this was more unique, but have since read and heard of other parents employing this technique.

    Whenever my brother and I had to share some sort of food, one of us would be given the task of cutting, and the other could then choose which half he wanted. Whoever did the cutting would then be extra careful to cut it exactly in half.

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  2. Chaz says:

    Once the kids figure out that the apology can be insincere, game theory over.

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  3. Craig French says:

    I too have noticed this gaming with our kids to a limited degree.

    I noticed a tangential effect I think of as a “peer-induced performance-muting effect”: One example is — our 11yo daughter and 10yo son both took piano lessons from the same teacher, and little brother really excelled. Big sister became vocally disheartened at her brother’s surpassing her skill level and eventually stopped lessons entirely. In response, our son also slowed way down and became less enthusiastic about sitting down at the keyboard at all, and I suspect this reaction was in empathy for his sister’s “plight”.

    I think this effect also exists in sports teams to some degree — unless a player has a very stong performance advantage over his teammates and can’t help but show it (Sidney Crosby, etc), teammates tend to herd in their demonstrated abilities in practices and games, regardless of meaningful, though not outlier level, skill differences — anecdotal evidence from observing the same 2 kids playing youth sports.

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  4. Ian Kemmish says:

    Is this a game theoretic attempt at child rearing, though? The mother surely can’t be either expecting or worse hoping, that the children will agree straight away and thereby escape punishment, so it seems clear that she has developed this method in either innocent or wilful ignorance of this aspect of game theory. So, whatever the basis for the approach is, it isn’t game theory.

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  5. Douglas Warren says:

    I think that is just pure, sibling spite coming into play.

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  6. Mike L says:

    Whenever my kids (7 and 5yr old twins) argue over a toy, I put the toy in a timeout and nobody can play with it. They get it back when they agree on a solution for taking turns. Their negotiations are fascinating.

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  7. Ghost says:

    Your theory is flawed. They are not “giving up” freedom or anything else. Your assumption is that being in their respective rooms is the same as giving up freedom. But, they haven’t given up anything — they’re just in their respective rooms doing something else.

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  8. Jennifer Tamez says:

    I make mine (3 and 6) put their noses to the wall, but separated so they can’t taunt each other. I don’t put any conditions on it. I don’t tell them they have to apologize. I just wait to see what happens. Somehow within 2 minutes, they are calm and ready to resume play in a cooperative manner.
    Do you think the lack of conditions is what changes the scenario?

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