Carnegie Mellon University
February 08, 2016

Kevin Zollman Writes “The Game Theorist’s Guide To Parenting”

By Emily Stimmel / 412-268-1788 /

For generations, parents have turned to experts for child-rearing advice. This spring, they can add game theorists to the list of parenting gurus.

On April 5, Carnegie Mellon University’s Kevin Zollman and co-author Paul Raeburn will release “The Game Theorist’s Guide to Parenting: How the Science of Strategic Thinking Can Help You Deal with the Toughest Negotiators You Know — Your Kids.”

“Game theory is exciting because it applies to almost all of our social lives,” said Zollman, associate professor of philosophy in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “It has been used to understand how animals search for food, how stores price their products and how people find their life partners. It's only natural that game theory should work for one of the toughest aspects of our lives — dealing with our children.”

Guide to Parenting Book Cover

Zollman first presented game theory to the masses in 2013, when he wrote an advice column for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, applying game theory strategies to routine dilemmas and major conflicts alike.

The following year, writer Jennifer Breheny Wallace drew upon Zollman’s knowledge to examine classic parent-child power struggles through the lens of game theory. A week after Wallace’s story ran in The Wall Street Journal, publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux approached Zollman with an idea to expand the concept into a book. There was just one catch: he doesn’t have children.

Enter Raeburn.

The father of five has written extensively on the intersection of science and parenting, most notably “Do Fathers Matter? What Science is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked.” Raeburn’s firsthand experiences with parenthood complemented Zollman’s game theory expertise and helped him devise realistic scenarios for applying the strategies.

In “The Game Theorist’s Guide to Parenting,” they demonstrate how parents can harness the science of strategic thinking to keep the peace with their kids. Through case studies, each chapter addresses specific issues that pop up at various developmental stages, starting at 5 years old and continuing through the teens.

For example, around age 7 or 8, children’s sense of fairness solidifies. (According to Raeburn and Zollman, kids grasp “He got more than me” sooner than “I got more than him.”) This conceptualization of fairness lies at the root of many sibling quarrels, particularly when it comes to indivisible resources — two kids want to be first to try out a new video game system or name the family pet, for instance.

Parents can divide time, but how can they fairly divide the “first time?” Coin tosses and simple games like rock, paper, scissors are often suggested, but they come with their own set of risks, like older kids taking advantage of their younger siblings. Instead, game theorists propose auctions.

According to the authors, “If you have one item that can’t be divided, you want to assign it to the person who desires it most.”

By using an auction system, kids are expected to announce how much they’d be willing to “pay” for an item or experience — Raeburn and Zollman suggest that payment be in the form of chores.

Other case studies draw from game theory concepts like the prisoner’s dilemma and the ultimatum game, and related disciplines like psychology and behavioral economics. Ultimately, they hope that parents will use the book’s recommendations to distribute resources to their children in a manner that reduces envy. By setting limits and sticking to them, parents are likely to hear fewer cries of “It’s not fair!”

Another bonus: game theory empowers children to take ownership of their decisions and begin to comprehend the consequences — to themselves and others.

Jessica Lahey applauded the strategies in her Amazon review.

“Paul Raeburn and Kevin Zollman achieve two incredible feats in ‘The Game Theorist's Guide to Parenting’: they helped me find a way to be fair and just in my parenting while teaching me the basics of game theory,” she wrote.

Lahey, author of The New York Times’ bestseller “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed,” added, “I absolutely loved this book, both as a parent, and as a nerd.”

An excerpt from the book will appear in the March/April 2016 issue of Scientific American Mind, which hits newsstands on Feb. 16. The book is available for pre-order on Amazon.