How using game theory can help you raise your children

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Learn how using Game Theory can help parents to teach their children about "fairness and equality!

Life, generally speaking, is unfair. There are some things that just are, and while they might not be the most just or equitable, we accept them. Kids, however, have a very different outlook on life. To them, most things are unfair. Kids argue over things that we adults would find trivial at best: who gets the bigger half of the PB&J, who gets to play with the better toy truck, who gets the good seat at the dinner table, etc.

Researchers have a new strategy for explaining how life can sometimes be unfair: game theory.

For those who don't know, game theory is a study of mathematics that aims to analyze the strategies competitive situations where the outcome of a participant's choice of action depends critically on the actions of other participants. For example, a game of poker or bridge; hence "game" theory.

In a less literal sense, game theory can be applied to economics, and psychology. In fact, many psychologists refer to game theory as "the theory of social interactions".

So, I'm sure you're wondering how this theory that analyses how game theory can be used to explain what is just and unjust to your children. Well, first it's important to understand the basics of human nature and our tendencies to feel indignant.

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Researchers have actually found that humans evolved to want fair treatment — an expectation that other social animals share. In a recent study, "researchers found that children as young as 19 months seem to understand the concept of fairness, and appear surprised by scenes of blatant favoritism – such as when one puppet is given toys and another puppet goes without. By age 7, some children will choose to forgo candy rather than get a significantly larger share than others," reports The New York Times.

Paul Raeburn, a co-author of The Game Theorist’s Guide to Parenting, claims that “The question of jealousy is easy — in any kind of group living, you have to be careful that somebody else isn’t getting more than you.”

The desire not to have more than others can also be explained. Going back to societies based around the idea of hunter-gatherers, conditions of scarcity arose frequently, sharing food when you had more increases the likelihood that others will share when you have less. Simply put, it's similar to the idea of paying it forward. “The presumption is that it gave some ancestor an evolutionary advantage,” Raeburn says.

Given that a child’s desire for life to be fair seems to be hard wired, it’s better not to fight it, says Mr. Raeburn. Alternatively, he suggests using a series of game theory based strategies to explain what's fair, and to put an end to trivial, little fights.

Click next to see Paul Raeburn's strategies for teaching your children about fairness! 

I Cut, You Pick: This classic strategy for dividing simple things, like cake, allows each child to make a choice: One divides the desired good, and the other chooses. I Cut, You Pick has limits, says Mr. Raeburn, if the thing to be divided has a different value to each child, or if there are more than two children with an interest. But if nothing else, it works well for cake.

Tit for Tat:When children are faced with the job of cleaning up a joint mess, suggest “you pick up one, then he picks up one,” said Mr. Raeburn. “We had mixed results with Tit for Tat,” he admits. His 9-year-old son was able to manipulate his 6-year-old brother into doing more. “This probably works better with children who are closer in age, or at least both over 7.”

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Random Dictator: In Random Dictator, a family faced with a choice that affects every family member (what movie to watch, what cereal to buy, which restaurant to go to) has each family member write down a selection, then draws a single one from a hat. One person ultimately chooses — but who “wins” is random.

Auction: How to decide who chooses the one show that will be watched tonight or gets first play on the iPad on a road trip? Try auctioning the desired reward to the highest bidder, using chores, other privileges or even Halloween candy as currency. “This involves some learning,” said Mr. Raeburn. “It’s easy for a child to overvalue something in the moment and get stuck doing way too many chores.” At first, he says, parents might have to monitor the fairness of the auction process itself — but children who like it may end up running auctions on their own.

In the end, children will still have spats in which they truly feel indignant. It's not rare that a child illogically finds a situation unfair. So, using these strategies will help, but may not completely eliminate every squabble or bout in your children. It's important that parents always try to empathize and relate to a child's perspective in order to get their point across.

[H/T] The New York Times

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