The Next Time Your Kid Tries to Manipulate You, Use Game Theory Against Them

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If you need proof that humans are born manipulators, look no farther than your average toddler. No one teaches them how to manipulate their parents (or try to, anyway) in order to get what they want.

They somehow just know how to make it happen.

And as they grow, their attempts become inevitably more sophisticated – at least a little.

Don’t worry, parents, we’ve got you covered with: use game theory to thwart their manipulations.

The advice comes from professor Kevin Zollman and journalist Paul Raeburn, and you can find more about it in their book, The Game Theorist’s Guide to Parenting. Below are some of their rules for negating tantrums, deflecting whining, and generally promoting peace in your home.

Force Cooperation

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If you’ve got siblings who refuse to work together, Zollman suggests putting the prisoner’s dilemma to work for you. Assign your kids a join task, then give them each the same reward (or punishment) based on their team performance.

It might take time, but the setup will compel them to learn how to make alliances for the good of all.

Don’t Give Them Anything For Free

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Instead of handing out privileges like the bigger room, the front seat of the car, or picking where you eat for dinner, make them earn it – they can bid on things that can’t be shared with allowances or extra chores.

Never Make Empty Threats

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If your kids sense that you won’t follow through on your threat – or that it might mean making you the parent suffer – they’ll be less likely to see it as credible. So always pick punishments that benefit you, so they know you’ll follow through.

Force Them to Lie

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It might sound counterintuitive, but forcing your kid to lie to your face repeatedly creates psychological discomfort they’ll likely want to avoid in the future.

Let Them Have Consequences

You can’t just bail your kids out when things get tough – even if it breaks your heart to let them cry over their own mess. If you swoop in and make it better, all you’re teaching them is that they can get their way by manipulating your emotions, which is exactly what you’re setting out to change.

There you go! Good parenting advice, if you ask me, whether you’re familiar with gaming and game theory or not.

If you’ve got a little manipulator on your hands, give these a try and report back!