How to Win Every Argument With Your Kids Forever

The answer can be found in game theory, according to a new book.

dad negotiating with his child.
Negotiate like a game theorist.


Successful parenting is all about the deft art of benevolent manipulation (some call it “negotiation”). But if my own flailings with my evil-genius 15-month-old are any indication, usually these attempts are an unholy amalgam of reverse psychology, reliance on a child’s belief in magic, and wishful thinking. (“But sweetie, we can’t do Cat Hat again, because Cat Hat went to bed! Cat Hat sleeping!”)

What if instead we could all get our kids to do our bidding—sorry, what’s best for them—using science? Or social science? Or philosophy? Or whatever game theory is?

The simplest way to think about game theory is that it’s math—specifically, as game theorist Roger B. Myerson puts it, it’s “the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers.” You can use game theory in everything from chess to hedge funds to war. So why not use it with your kids?

Now we can, thanks to The Game Theorist’s Guide to Parenting, a new book by journalist Paul Raeburn and Carnegie Mellon philosophy professor Kevin Zollman. They join a welcome trend of academics pairing up with writers (or comedians!) to create a true crossover offering, one that marries rigorous research and real scholarship with a compelling style and narrative arc that human beings actually want to read on purpose.

The Game Theorist’s Guide to Parenting offers everything from the evolutionary reasons why your kids insist on everything being “fair” (Capuchin monkeys are involved) to an ingenious solution for getting them to share something that can’t be divided (like the first turn on the PlayStation). The book tackles many of the most frustrating arguments parents get into with their kids (or kids get into with one another): he started it; she got the big half; the dog ate my homework; you can’t tell me what to do—but from the perspective of a game theorist.

Raeburn and Zollman offer some comfort to parents by explaining exactly why each of these behaviors might be hard-wired into our DNA. Then they present innovative game-theory solutions—such as auctioning off that PlayStation turn to the highest bidder, or learning how to make threats that you will actually enjoy following through on (i.e., not I’ll turn this car right around). The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Rebecca Schuman: Do you have children?

Kevin Zollman: I don’t, which makes this a very strange project for me. When we got together to plan out the book, I would run game theory scenarios by Paul and see if there were any parenting examples that fit. He would run parenting problems by me, and see if game theory could help. I also drew on my own childhood and on the experiences of my friends. My parents were happy to tell stories of me being difficult—maybe even too happy.

Paul Raeburn: I have three grown children, two boys (6 and 9), and one grandchild.

Paul, have you ever used the “auction” technique for solving that age-old problem of who gets the first turn on the new scooter or other things that can’t be divided? I loved that idea: You get the kids to “bid”—with money, chores, pushups, whatever—and whoever wants it the most gets it. I think that would have single-handedly saved my parents’ sanity in 1983.

Raeburn: I’ve had mixed results trying some of these techniques with my boys. The chore auction works sometimes. But one notable problem is that my boys aren’t equals: The older one clearly can manage some strategies that the younger one can’t. I suspect auctions will work better in a few years when the age difference doesn’t feel as great.

Paul, how did you get interested in game theory?

Raeburn: I’ve always been interested in scientific understanding of behavior. My previous book, Do Fathers Matter?, wasn’t a game theory book, but it did look at scientific data on fathers and what they contribute to their children. And game theory has always struck me as an elegant body of work, so I was ready to jump in.

Kevin, I was especially fascinated by the notion that kids are sort of hard-wired to lie because their interests inherently contradict with ours. I remember once my brother lied to my dad and said his Cabbage Patch Kid ate a cookie, and my dad was depressed about it for years. Why do kids do this, and what can we do about it?

Zollman: Lying arises ultimately because one party has desires that conflict with another party. A child might want to avoid doing her homework, while Mom and Dad want her to do it. Their interests conflict, so now the daughter has an incentive to lie to her parents. In our book, we talk about various ways that parents can combat this by changing the incentives for the child. Parents know the old standbys: reward honesty or punish lying.  But there are others. When I was in high school, I used to lie and tell my parents I didn’t have any homework. My parents made me sit and study for two hours every evening regardless of whether I said I had homework. This took away the benefit of lying and thus made me more honest.

And let’s talk a bit about the complaint that every parent has heard approximately 9 billion times: That’s not fair!

Zollman: One thing that psychologists and game theorists have discovered is that there are actually two different senses of fairness that arise at different times. The jealous one, He got more than me, arises at a very young age. Some primatologists think we even have this in common with other primates. The other sense of fairness, It’s not fair that I got more than her, comes much later, around 7 to 9.

In the book we talk about how parents can create divisions that are “envy-free.” Envy-free situations are those where no kid thinks that the other got more than him. One way is with “I cut, you pick.” One child divides a collection of desirable things into two piles, and the other picks. This strategy works whether what they’re dividing is toys, cookies, or games. 

Paul, have you tried this with your kids? How did it work?

Raeburn: “I cut, you pick” works well, as long as we take turns regarding who cuts and who picks. Trying to persuade them that it’s better to share, say, a box of candy works if we explain that the situation will come up again and the advantages might be reversed. 

What was it like for an academic and a journalist to team up and produce something so readable (and yet immaculately researched)? I feel like every academic should team up with a writer and write an amazing crossover book like this—it could save the humanities at last!

Zollman: It was a great collaboration. Paul and [Farrar, Straus and Giroux editor] Amanda [Moon] both did a wonderful job helping me to adapt the writing style from academia. The thing that really amazed me about Paul was how fast he was able to pick up the academic side. Game theory isn’t easy, and Paul didn’t have much background. But he picked up complex concepts—moral hazard, for example—and used them without skipping a beat. 

Raeburn: Kevin surprised us by being a very capable writer of plain English. Few academics can write as well for a popular audience.

Kevin, you’re tenured now, so a crossover book like this won’t have any adverse effect on your portfolio. But can you tell me a little bit about how your colleagues have reacted to you teaming up with a journalist?

Zollman: I probably wouldn’t have agreed to take on the book before tenure, because it doesn’t count for that. But I had been eager to do something like this for some time—something that used game theory in a way that connected with people’s everyday experiences. I think the humanities—and some of the social sciences, for that matter—are under constant challenge because we have done a terrible job showing people how our studies can be interesting, important, and useful. I wanted to find a way to make this abstract thing that I study relevant and interesting to people. My department here at CMU is abnormal: Almost everyone agrees that philosophy should connect with something outside of philosophy. As a result, my colleagues have been supportive and encouraging. 

In a few cases, people have said things like, “Why would you do that?” I think there is still, sadly, some vestiges of the “Smart people don’t talk to the Muggles” attitude in philosophy. Thankfully, this seems to be on its way out.