Mommying BabyT

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Negotiating with kids – the economics of Game theory

This weekend was a very hectic one. It also seemed to be the hottest day in Mumbai. We spent a day out with our son, despite the hot sun, because well it had been a long time since we had done something outdoors as a family. So anyway when we got back home in the evening, we were dead tired and just wanted to crash. But before that – dinner time. BabyT was in a happy, over joyous mood and the last thing he wanted to do was eat his dinner. My husband attempted to tempt him, “I’ll give you a deal, finish your dinner and we will have the ripe, sweet mangoes after that.” My son paused, scampered up to me and proudly proclaimed, “I’ll make you a deal… I won’t go to school tomorrow.” I laughed a rather nervous laughter. I couldn’t handle a toddler off school when I had tons of work to finish. But somewhere I was amazed that a 2 year old had the skills to attempt to negotiate with his parents.

Kids are always the winners

I quickly shared this story on my Instagram stories and asked my friends how they negotiated with their children. All the responses were the same –  no parent is ever winning the negotiation round with children.

Kids are unreasonable. They want something just because they want it. They don’t even know why they want it. One of my friend’s daughter’s favourite tantrum is “why did mommy give me Dal Chawal for dinner. I wanted Dal Rice.” Not even the most enlightened one will succeed at convincing her that Rice and Chawal are the same thing. One is in Hindi and the other in English. Game over!

But kids do attempt to negotiate. You offer them (bribe) them 2 biscuits if they clean their room and they will agree to do it for 4 instead. This means that inherently they understand how a negotiation works – it has to be to their advantage, give them maximum returns, and sometimes even test the parents just a little bit more.

This is visible even more when you have more than 1 kid in the picture.. elder sister knows that she can manipulate most situations and convince the younger one that he must eat less chocolates and give them to her instead. Fairness as a concept comes in only much later and when it does it’s usually, “That’s not fair.”

Surely we parents, the more learned, patient, wise ones can use this to our advantage. Well, two fathers – one a philosopher and one a journalist seem to think so.

Economics 101

These 2 fathers, Kevin Zollman and Paul Raeburn wrote a book together called The Game Theorist’s guide to Parenting. Unlike most other books on parenting, the game theory of parenting looks purely at an economical model which has been researched and proven with hard core mathematical and statistical data. This is not your average parenting mumbo jumbo but the stuff that has won Nobel Prize for Economics. Think John Nash of A Beautiful Mind – all that kind of mind boggling economics.

Negotiating with kids - the economics of Game theory | Mommying BabyT #gametheory #economics #parenting #negotiatingwithkids #discipline

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Game theory is essentially the study of conflict and cooperation in competitive situations. The benefit for one person depend critically on the behaviour of the other person involved with him in this competitive situation. A favourite example of most economists is the prisoner’s case. Two people are suspected of a crime and they are to be questioned separately. If one of them blames the other, then his own sentence will be reduced while the other one rots in jail. If both confess then they will spend a reduced but equal term in jail. If both deny then they still undergo trial but may face a much shorter term in jail.

However both the robbers have no way of knowing what the other will confess so they will usually both confess. Game theory is all about how people behave in situations where the outcome for one person is dependent on the behaviour of the other.

This could apply to economics, business, auctions, and parenting.

Parenting & game theory 

While I strongly advocate that if this topic interests you, you buy this book by Raeburn and Zollman. Its a fun read and makes so much sense about the way kids and parents behave when there are toys to be picked up, treats to be divided and making siblings fight less and cooperate more.

(This is an Amazon affiliate link. If you buy the book from here, I will receive a teen tiny commission. But this will not cost you anything extra.)

They have presented various scenarios which can help us negotiate better and win with our children.

Cutting cake 

They call this the “I cut, you pick” scenario. There is cake which is cut by two children. One cuts and the other chooses which one he wants to have. The remainder goes to the other child or the person who cut the cake. This logically implies that the cutter would have made sure the cake was cut into 2 equal pieces, so that he himself does not get short changed when it comes to receiving a part of the cake.

In a simple scenario this would work great. But preferences vary.. some kids like the frosting and toppings, while some love the inner, moist cake. In such cases, the author says, it would help both the cutter and the chooser if they knew what each other’s preferences were.

This theory of choosing one out of the pile also works well for the parents where parent A and parent B have to choose between sharing the workload. One parent makes two lists of stuff to be done. The other parent chooses which one he will do. The remainder is taken up by the list drawer.

When the object cannot be split

Cake was pretty simple. But there are cases when things cannot be cut. Take for example, time one would spend watching TV or playing video games. What do you do in such cases? Simple says economics, you auction.

An auction is simply bidding for something you value and want. We have all seen how auctions work in movies. Those types are the open cry auction. An object is presented and the audience who wishes to have the item will keep bidding till he reaches his budget or perceived value of the item. Eventually the last one whose auction has been unchallenged wins the item.

Auctions can also be sealed bids wherein the interested parties write their intended buying price and seal this in an envelope and send to the auctioneer. The person who mentioned the maximum amount obviously wins.

Dutch auctions also exist where the auctioneer announces a ridiculously high value for an item and then reduces the price bit by bit. Interested parties can halt the clock and choose to buy the item for the last stated price.

However how does one auction with kids around? Surely this is not a way for parents to make money out of their children. Authors Raeburn and Zollman suggest using chores. This is a win-win for parents because the children get to enjoy the benefits of the negotiations and parents win the chores.

Inequity aversion – inherently fair

Humans are inherently fair say the authors. However the fairness sounds more like “That’s not fair.” Humans are averse of inequity, meaning that they do not want to receive less value for something than the next best person. However developing this sense of fairness takes time and is only achieved as the child grows.

Parents in their negotiation and parenting should aim to teach children about fairness.


Let’s get real here. All parents use ultimatums… “If you don’t finish your homework you cannot play your video game today.” However the authors say the one thing that most parents lack on is follow-through. Many parents fall short of fulfilling their ultimatums.

This is bad parenting because it makes children manipulate their parents even more. Parents slowly lose any credibility and this makes it hard to parent the big stuff.

So first and foremost the authors say make your ultimatums realistic and seem like it is doable. Telling the kids that you will discontinue the cable if they don’t do their homework when they know that it is IPL season and daddy will not want anything getting in the way of his Mumbai Indians matches is futile. The children know daddy’s ultimatum of cancelling the cable is never going to happen. Behaviour modification is never going to happen here.

Instead if parents give a realistic ultimatum, “no ice cream for one week” the kids know this is something that the parent can control and will try to if they don’t listen to what needs to be done. A well designed ultimatum will also work to make kids behave on a regular basis also. This is not a joke, this actually won a Nobel prize for economics.

Dealing with lies

One of my colleagues had a simple principle with which she had raised her son. She had told him  that she had 5 eyes, 2 on her face, 1 behind her, 1 in the playground and 1 in school. This way she knew what he was up to at all times. With some tact and subtle guesswork she was able to get any news and updates out of him. There was no room for lies or hidden truths here. Sheer brilliance, I am stealing this idea.

Zollman and Raeburn urge parents to reward honesty and punish lies. They remind us of the boy who cried wolf and that it is ok to ignore liars.

Game theory when applied to economics, business and social interactions have mesmerized experts for years. Game theory has won close to 12 Nobel prizes so far. It is truly a force to be reckoned with and if you know how it works you can use it to make sure all parties stand to gain from it. Economics can be applied to Parenting too. All you need to do is make sure the cake to be cut is appealing to all parties.

This blog post is part of a series for the #AtoZBloggingChallenge where my theme is
New Age Parenting: Parenting in 201x.
Read my theme reveal post here.

To read all the posts for the #AtoZChallenge go here – #AtoZ2018

You may also find this post on Discipline very helpful.


  1. That’s such an informative post Tara. I am also an economics person but never thought this way. Thanks for the book recco

  2. Never thought of applying economics to parenting before! Being more left brained as a person, I am always looking evidence and analysis based solutions to everything..this really appealed to me. I’m going to try some of these tactics in my dealings with the toddler ?

  3. Lol, they know the art of negotiation really well. And they take full advantage of it.
    I would say tread cautiously, one day they will find out that we lied about 5 eyes thingy and they would think it’s ok to lie. Rather books like panchtantra can be read to them to make them understand what can be the repurcusions of lying.

    • mommyingbabyt

      April 18, 2018 at 9:25 am

      Well I wouldn’t actually dispute the 5 eyes theory. mothers do seem to know whats up with their kids. ? Its an inherent sixth sense. But i get your point. anyway the 5 eye theory was just to emphasise about how to deal with lying on part of children and i used a funny anecdote. it is not a part of game theory ?

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