Raising kids on guilt, bribery, and game theory

game theory grid
game theory grid

I've been reading a lot about ethics lately and have been interested to see how game theory (think A Beautiful Mind and little tic-tac-toe grids with choices for each of the 'players' as column and row headings) affects our choices as parents. It turns out that ethics are taught at home, not at business school (makes you wonder about the early childhood of the CEOs of our favorite financial institutions, don't it?).

When I read today's "Motherlode" column about parenting with bribes, I was, frankly, amazed. Lisa Belkin points us to a story on the New York Moms blog about a lovely little bit of game theory as exercised by a parent who was done with sibling rivalry. A child would get fifty cents at the end of the day if he was better-behaved than his sibling; but if both were perfect, they would each get a dollar (I've illustrated this in game theory-ese, to the right).

According to Amy, her children (four and seven years old) chose the mutually beneficial outcome, even though psychological experiments with young adults typically show that competitive behavior will often void the mutually beneficial outcome. Amy set up what may be a perfect (if minorly expensive at $2 a day) game - the word for a set of choices and outcomes - proving that her children are, indeed, rational.

I've bribed my children very occasionally with mixed results; my best outcomes were with paying my oldest son, who's six, to "babysit" his little brothers while I took a shower, a nap, or worked out in the garden. Have you paid for good behavior? Has it worked?