Ben: Ready, ready? Okay, okay.
Both: Rock, paper, scissors.
Ben: A-ha, paper covers rock. I win this one. Okay, so I'm Ben Klemens
Liz: I'm Lz Landau, and this is pod paper scissors.
Liz: We're back and we are bringing pod paper scissors to you from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
That was the babbling of the Potomac. And now back to our show.
Ben: Liz, I saw a child today.
Liz: Wow, a real life small person.
Ben: What we're getting out here is like it, they're hard to understand.
Liz: Parents everywhere are having a really tough time right now since kids are spending more time at home than ever because of COVID. And they have to make sure that the kids are learning through Zoom and doing their homework on top of everything else that they would normally do as parents. It's a really tough time.
Liz: I wanted to give some advice to my friends who are struggling to keep their kids in line during this hard time. So I called up Kevin Zollman.
Kevin: I work at Carnegie Mellon University, and I'm a professor of Philosophy and Social and Decision Sciences.
Liz: He wrote a book with Paul Rayburn called _The Game Theorist's Guide to Parenting_. How the science of strategic thinking can help you deal with the toughest negotiators you know, your kids.
Kevin says you really need to figure out what motivates your child? What is it that they really want? Do they like cookies? Do they like video games? Do they like television? Could you use the thing that they love to help them do the things that you need them to do?
Kevin: This is one of the central things that a Game Theorists will always talk about when you're thinking about bargaining. And ultimately, that's what this is, the parents want to do one thing and the kids want to do something else. And so sometimes the parents can, by figuring out what it is that the child really would like, or what it is that they really desire, sometimes there actually might be the opportunities for, you know, people don't like these terms, but something like a settlement that is finding something that will satisfy the child.
Ben: Yeah, it kind of makes you wonder what kids actually want. Do they have fixed preferences, you know, we always assume that people have some list of desires, and they're trying to achieve them. But maybe, for a kid, it's just what's directly in front of them at the moment. And if you turn them 90 degrees, and show them something else, all their preferences change.
Kevin: You know, when you start to understand what your kids love, and what your kids enjoy, you can you can find ways to be creative and reward them, which don't even necessarily always feel like rewards necessarily, from your perspective, like letting them have time with their favorite toy or spending time with them, which is a reward from the parents perspective, too, parents enjoy spending time with their kids. It's often you know, when we think, especially economists, think about you know, rewards we often think in monetary terms and parents sometimes slip into that with kids too, like you reward them with more allowance or something like that. But you don't have to, it has to be anything that the kid would enjoy or want to do.
Liz: Yeah, I bet it really depends on how old they are to, you know, a five year old, you might like different things that a 15 year old.
Kevin: For families that have multiple kids, a constant source of conflict is but the kids can't coöperate with one another. They're constantly at each other's throats. The example we use in the book is the story of two kids who share like a play room or a bedroom and that they need to clean up but they need to clean up together. Well, the risk here is that each one wants to kind of sit back and let the other one do all of the work while they get the benefit of having the clean room and having mom or dad be happy. But they didn't do any of the work, then we we make this as a kind of analogy with the classic Prisoner's Dilemma story, which I think you've talked about on your podcast before. And we talk about ways that you can take what is a big problem like cleaning the room and break it up into small problems so that the kids can implement a version of a strategy called tit for tat. So you teach the kids like, well, each of you make this agreement, I'll pick up one toy, and then wait for my brother or sister to pick up the other toy. And then we alternate back and forth. And that way each one can see that their coöperation gets them benefits. It gets the other one to coöperate as well.
Ben: So far from what Kevin's describing kids are coming off is really like the perfect textbook Homo Economicus, just really good at focusing on their own self interest and really advocating for themselves.
Liz: Yeah, those meddling kids. How can parents help kids focus on things like homework when there are so many distractions?
Kevin: Rewards will tend to be more effective than punishments. So part of the reason that rewards are more important is because human beings, and we're not entirely sure if kids are the same, but at least adult human beings tend to be less risk seeking when they stand to gain a reward, and more risk seeking when they stand to face a loss. So what that means is kids are more likely to say something like, if I'm foregoing something that's good, like I won't get a cookie, I'm going to not take any risk that I might like, sneak away and not do my homework or something. But if they're risking a punishment, they're more willing to take that risk, they're more willing to say, well, I'll play with my toy now and take the risk of punishment later. And so if you think about this, this way that adults treat rewards and punishment is analogous with kids that suggests that rewards may actually be more effective at getting kids to do their schoolwork than threats of punishment.
Ben: Cool, that's a great point.
Kevin: Now you want to be careful with your kid, you don't want to give them incentive to do less than they would ordinarily. But if you're finding that they're doing none of their homework, giving them a reward for doing half their homework might get you more than it's, you know, then then saying it's all or nothing.
Liz: We also talked about something called fair division. Imagine that you have a cake. One person cuts the cake, the other person chooses a piece. This principle has many applications. If you think about it, like a metaphor.
Kevin: If you have kids that are fighting over say, a particular set of toys, they want to they're they're having a conflict over who gets to play with each with each toy, you can also use "I cut, you pick" by having one kid sort all the toys into two different piles, and then the other kid chooses which pile of toys they're going to play with. It's the same strategy as "I cut, you pick", but now it's with the toys in the place of the cake. And one kid sorting them into piles in the place of them cutting it into two.
Liz: parents can also implement this fair division strategy in dividing up chores and other things in their own lives.
Kevin: So if there are a bunch of chores, like right now, during the pandemic, parents are totally overwhelmed by the amount of parenting tasks they have. One way to fairly divide those tasks is to have one spouse say, write down all the tasks and divide it into two piles. Not saying which pile he or she's going to do just say, Here's pile one, here's pile two. And then the other spouse can say, Okay, I'll take everything in pile one.
Liz: Part of why this fair division principle works is that both parties feel like they have a sense of control.
Kevin: And it's also because no one has an incentive to try and sneak one over. The first person who's doing the dividing, she doesn't know which pile she's going to get. So she has an incentive to make, from her perspective, the piles as equal as possible, because if she makes one pile better than the other, then the other person will just choose the better pile just like if you if you cut the cake where one slice is bigger than the other person just going to choose the bigger slice. So the first person has an incentive to try and create as fair a division as possible. And then the second person gets to choose which one they prefer. And so they have this incentive to say, well, you know, this is the one I prefer. And so I can't complain, because I chose the one that I prefer.
Ben: Oh, it sounds like we're treading into theory of mind.
Kevin: And so a lot of these game theoretic techniques can teach kids what psychologists call a _theory of mind_. It teaches them how to think about what someone else wants, what someone else is thinking what someone else is going to do. And this is an incredibly important skill. Developmentally, it's important it starts to arise around, you know, 7, 8, 9 is when it sort of starts to show up in kids, I think. And also it's very important in our adult lives, because we're constantly thinking about what is my boss want me to do? What is my you know, I'm thinking about what is one that my wife want me to do? What does, what do my students in my class want me to do? And so developing that skill through games is great, because games are fun. And you get immediately rewarded for success, but they're also teaching these kinds of skills.
Liz: You know what, we should do an episode about that someday?
Ben: Absolutely. It's essential.
Liz: So yeah, I had a great time talking to Kevin about game theory and parenting. And even though I don't even have kids of my own, I hope that parents out there have taken something away from this. And you know, with this fair division principle, you can really use it in your own life, even if you don't have kids. If you have to divide up chores with somebody else, if you have to divide up tasks at work with somebody else. "You cut, I pick" is a great strategy. You can follow Kevin at @KevinZollman on Twitter, and definitely check out his book. For more information about helping your kids through this wild wild world through game theory. Tune in next time for
Both: Pod, Paper Scissors.