Friday, December 28, 2018

Parenting Book Review: The Game Theorist's Guide to Parenting


When I mentioned on my Craft Knife Facebook page that I was interested in learning more about parenting seen through the lens of game theory, one of the comments on my post was an impassioned rebuttal of using game theory to parent. The gist of the comment was that one's relationship with one's children should be collaborative, not competitive, and treating parenting as a win-or-lose scenario would be harmful to children.

That comment made me realize that many people don't understand what game theory is, which is a bummer, because game theory is AWESOME and fully relevant to a whole myriad of human interactions.

Game theory is essentially the study of strategic decision-making. So yes, it covers games and how to win them, but it also deals with how to achieve the optimal result whenever strategy is called for. And optimal result doesn't necessarily mean winning--if you want everyone happy, then that's your optimal result. If you want a fair allocation of Christmas presents or parental attention, then that's your optimal result. If you want your kid to grow up to be a good, honest, fair, friendly person, then that's certainly your optimal result!

So when I read The Game Theorist's Guide to Parenting (I had my local university's library inter-library loan it for me!), I wasn't trying to win parenting, but to see if they had any strategies that would, say, get my kids to stop fighting, or help me figure out how to teach my kid who's also a lying liar who lies how to stop lying all the dang time.

There is a chapter on lying. Spoiler alert: there is no quick and easy strategy to get your kid to stop lying, dang it.

There are LOTS of ways, however, to make sure that you're treating kids fairly, and that's actually the part of the book that I enjoyed the most. The authors emphasize that of course fair does not mean equal--if you give your kids equal slices of a half-chocolate, half-vanilla cake, but the kid who only loves chocolate gets vanilla and the kid who only loves vanilla gets chocolate, then that's not fair. So the authors go through tons of different ways to divvy up resources, and you can read through them and utilize whatever appeals to you. Bigger families might like the auction approaches, but I have long been a heavy utilizer of the I Cut, You Choose school of choice-making.

You know that one. Whenever you give your kids or partner a list to choose from, whether it's chores or vacation destinations or movies for Family Movie Night, but you've made the list and so you're cool with everything on it, that's I Cut, You Choose. It's my favorite.

There's also a good chapter on how to best utilize punishments and rewards, if you use them. For one, don't make a punishment that punishes YOU as much as it does the kid--for instance, don't automatically ground your kid from the car if it means that you're just going to have to play chauffeur yourself. Instead, think about what has the most impact from the kid's point of view. If they're misusing the car, then, perhaps they should pay for their own insurance, or gas, or drive Meals on Wheels for a while. That kind of thing.

But even the punishment/reward chapter is more invested in social contracts than purely cause and effect. Like, not how to punish your kid, per se, but how to help her fulfill the social contract that she made to you concerning how she would use the car. The authors claim that pre-committing to the consequences help enforce this. It's why school sports programs have academic requirements, and everybody already knows what will happen if a kid violates them. So the authors encourage bringing another person into your contract: if one kid steals the other kid's water bottle one more time, tell them both that she can also do that kid's dishwasher duty that day. Now you have someone else to help you enforce the contract!

Lying is one of my kid's main faults. She's always been very bright, and very bright kids do have a tendency to become manipulative, or resort to lying, simply because they can often make it work to their advantage. Lying is a hard flaw to correct, and the authors would tend to agree with that, because they don't have any clear-cut solutions. They do, however, have one piece of advice that I've since taken to heart: ask LOTS of questions, and get lots and lots and LOTS of details. The idea is that lying requires mental and emotional labor. You have to think through your lie, and maintain it while knowing that what you're doing is wrong. So in every tempting scenario, ask lots of questions. Solicit LOTS of details. If the kid is telling the truth, then there's no extra mental or emotional labor involved in offering more information. If the kid is lying, then even if you don't catch her in her lie (which I often don't, because like I said, my kid is very bright), then you're still making her work a lot harder than she would be working if she was just telling the truth. Ideally, that labor will eventually become so costly that lying is no longer worth it.

I have been trying this one, and I think it's working. It's best if I do the questioning in ways that don't sound like I'm trying to catch her in a lie, because then she just doubles-down with her stubbornness and she'd die before she let me win when she's being stubborn, but asking lots of questions and eliciting lots of details, as well as having a reputation for checking in and following through (which, by the way, is EXHAUSTING if you think about how much you ask a teen and tween to do independently without you having to check that they've done every single thing), is at least better than screaming and frustration.

Why is my kid so feral? Sigh...

Other chapters, such as how to help your kids learn to get along, or how to encourage them to do their best in school, weren't as relevant to me, and I fully admit that the voting chapter got a little over my head, but overall, I highly recommend this book, most particularly if you, like me, seem to have at least one budding little manipulative game theorist of your own.

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