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How To Win at Parenting

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CHILD EATING VEGETABLES
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At the movie theater last weekend, my three young children were each bargaining for their own jumbo we-won't-make-it-through-the-movie-with-all-this-sugar box of candy. No chance, I said, we're just getting one. As they continued to negotiate with me, I flashed back to an economics class I took in college and got an idea. We're going to play a game, I blurted out. It stopped them long enough for me to get out the rules:

You're going to play rocks-paper-scissors, I explained, and the winner will choose the box of candy to be shared. But there's a catch, I said, all three of you have to agree on the box or nobody gets the candy.

In economics class, this is called an ultimatum game. When you're in a long concession line on a hot summer day, it's called grasping at straws. In any event, my kids were excited to play.

My oldest won and after about 30 seconds of deliberation, bartering and pleading, they made their decision, together, in time for us to get to our seats before the movie started. They won, I won, the people in the back of our line won. That's my version of winning at parenting, one small battle at a time.

You want what's best for your children, you want them to be happy, but you want to be happy too. Parenting strategically can help, like using the ultimate game at the theater to ward off a tantrum. Being strategic with your children might sound unloving and even manipulative, but it's not. As parents, we're strategic all day, everyday: from getting kids to sleep and picky eaters to eat to convincing our teens to clean up their rooms or to stop fighting with their siblings. Having to think in the heat of the moment, when you're about to blow your lid, sets us up to fail. So plan ahead. Think strategically and win.

Tired of fighting on road trips about which song should play on the radio? Here's how one dad, Professor Michael Chwe at UCLA, has eliminated backseat bickering: a "tit for tat" strategy he calls the Radio Boss. Tape an index card to your dashboard with your children's names on each side, one you can flip back and forth daily. Whoever's turn it is, dictated by the card, gets to be the radio boss. The boss gets to pick all the songs on the radio, no fighting, no questions asked.

I offer more parenting strategies in an article I wrote for this weekend's Wall Street Journal. Here's an example from the article, a strategy for picky eaters that I call the Kale Conundrum: The father of a picky eater I know uses a clever tactic to get his child to eat a variety of foods. When he puts one type of food on his son's plate, the child often refuses it. But if he ups the initial price to four different foods, his son will eat two, feeling that he "won" the negotiation by eating only half of what's asked.

As they say in negotiations, that's a win-win: My friend's son is eating his vegetables and they're both happy about it.


To learn more easy-to-use strategies for everyday parenting challenges (like getting your children to clean up, following through on punishments, or making things fair and square) check out my Wall Street Journal article here