Bets, Bonds, and Kindergarteners

by jefftkjefftk1 min read3rd Jan 202123 comments



Bets and bonds are tools for handling different epistemic states and levels of trust. Which makes them a great fit for negotiating with small children!

A few weeks ago Anna (4y) wanted to play with some packing material. It looked very messy to me, I didn't expect she would clean it up, and I didn't want to fight with her about cleaning it up. I considered saying no, but after thinking about how things like this are handled in the real world I had an idea. If you want to do a hazardous activity, and we think you might go bankrupt and not clean up, we make you post a bond. This money is held in escrow to fund the cleanup if you disappear. I explained how this worked, and she went and got a dollar:


When she was done playing, she cleaned it up without complaint and got her dollar back. If she hadn't cleaned it up, I would have, and kept the dollar.

Some situations are more complicated, and call for bets. I wanted to go to a park, but Lily (6y) didn't want to go to that park because the last time we had been there there'd been lots of bees. I remembered that had been a summer with unusually many bees, and it no longer being that summer or, in fact, summer at all, I was not worried. Since I was so confident, I offered my $1 to her $0.10 that we would not run into bees at the park. This seemed fair to her, and when there were no bees she was happy to pay up.

Over time, they've learned that my being willing to bet, especially at large odds, is pretty informative, and often all I need to do is offer. Lily was having a rough morning, crying by herself about a project not working out. I suggested some things that might be fun to do together, and she rejected them angrily. I told her that often when people are feeling that way, going outside can help a lot, and when she didn't seem to believe me I offered to bet. Once she heard the 10:1 odds I was offering her I think she just started expecting that I was right, and she decided we should go ride bikes. (She didn't actually cheer up when we got outside: she cheered up as soon as she made this decision.)

I do think there is some risk with this approach that the child will have a bad time just to get the money, or say they are having a bad time and they are actually not, but this isn't something we've run into. Another risk, if we were to wager large amounts, would be that the child would end up less happy than if I hadn't interacted with them at all. I handle this by making sure not to offer a bet I think they would regret losing, and while this is not a courtesy I expect people to make later in life, I think it's appropriate at their ages.

Comment via: facebook


23 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:17 PM
New Comment

This is an awesome idea! i really love your parenting posts and I'm not even close to that stage in life, you're doing something very much right :)

p.s - Somewhat related, when i was little i used to offer my mom bets all the time, but she was already used to losing bets with my older brothers so she never took any of them (i still find myself wanting to offer her bets sometimes, but she doesn't see bets the same way rationalists do).


This is my second "jefftk parenting post" that I've curated. Last time, I cited some reasons this seemed relevant:

I think there is actually something fairly important about the topic of raising kids, which is relevant to more common LessWrong themes. First, there is a sense in which raising a family is one of the core things humanity is about. Many LW folk don't seem to have kids, and part of me is worried that all our philosophy and strategy is sort of missing something important if we don't have a background sense of "what raising kids is like" subtly informing our judgments.

There is also a sense in which this post is about "how to raise an agent", which I think ties pretty directly into core LW themes. I felt like reading the article fit into my overall worldview that includes robust agents and rationality and learning to think independently. (I think this effect was weaker than the previous “why artists study anatomy” curation, but similar in type)

This time, I'm much more explicitly excited about how the second point ties into core LessWrong themes. I'm interested in both how coordination schemes work when children interact with them, and the prospect of teaching good habits on how to think probabilistically.

I have done both things with my boys. 

My kids like sleeping in the living room - but often don't clean up in the morning. I used a bond for that and it worked. In a family conference, we later decided on a ban to not sleep in the living room for a week if it is not cleaned up but that was not my preferred way. 

I also often require a bond if the kids want to borrow money or something but e.g. have open dues. 

I bet with them quite often and they bet among themselves - including nonequal odds. I win more often than not and they learned from that. I once did lose 50 EUR at 10:1 odds to my oldest son because I was very confident about one of our house rules but it turned out my wife had changed it shortly before. With the smaller boys, I require that they do the bet in front of an arbiter and I may limit the amount they bet.

We also play Bluff, Yahtzee, and other board games with dice and I guess that also helps with an understanding of probability. 

Kind of related to that: A fun game is "random walks": Talk a walk and at every corner throw a die and continue into the randomly chosen direction. Repeat as desired. Can lead to interesting places especially in parks.

wow this is so cute

Interesting discussion on the repost on FB by Kaj.

I have tried something similar but not with money (I find my kids aren't very motivated by money - not sure why). In our case the losing party usually has to formally acknowledge the victor with some silly phrase - "Dad is an amazing human / genius" or "Mark is a pro and I'm a noob". This doesn't allow for different odds (maybe I could tailor different phrases to achieve this?) although I will sometimes offer it without them being held to anything if I am sufficiently confident.

I do think there is some risk with this approach that the child will have a bad time just to get the money

I was worried about this too but similarly haven't actually experienced it - I don't think my kids have the willpower / concentration to keep this up for long enough!

When my oldest son got 14 I gave him the opportunity to invest 1000 EUR any way he wanted. Invest, not spend, i.e. selecting any kind of investment opportunity with some more or less variable payoff. After at most a year he would then get five times the earnings paid out (5x to increase signal and motivation). I was expecting that he would select some common financial instruments like stocks or bonds or plain savings account but I was open to any halfway reasonable other option. So far he has not made use of the option and I am unsure why. I think he is waiting for the best possible opportunity. 

In the meantime, his brother got 14. He researched and after observing some stocks selected S&P 500 and Nasdaq 100 and I added both to my depot at the end of October 2019. Already at the end of December 2019, after frequent monitoring, he chose to take his win of ~60x5=300 EUR - much more than I expected. I decided to keep them in my depot until I got my losses back. You know what happened. 

This didn't exactly go as I expected though not exactly worse. It has led to quite a few interesting discussions and I intend to offer the same to their younger brothers when they get 14. 

I've made sure my child has a 'budget' they can spend – and some portion on anything (that's not egregiously dangerous or inappropriate). That seems to have quickly demonstrated the value of money to them.

But I like betting with any kind of payouts too – and you can approximate 'odds' by agreeing to 'lopsided' payouts, e.g. 'you have to give me a hug if you lose; I'll take you to the Zoo if you win'.

I think this is an awesome parenting strategy, especially with the "posting bond" idea :) One question I have about the "bee bet" is whether you'd shared your explanation for why there wouldn't be any bees with her before you offered to bet?

The only real concern I'd have about betting is if it became a way to circumvent having to actually teach them about the world. Bets make the most sense to me when they're either fun for their own sake, or to add stakes to a dispute that we've already tried hard to resolve through argument and study.

whether you'd shared your explanation for why there wouldn't be any bees with her before you offered to bet?

I had. When she still didn't believe me I offered the bet.

When they grow older this will be required even - as they learn to negotiate the exact terms and conditions. 

Disputes over the betting verdict can be resolved by getting both parties to invest in future bettings such that today's loss is outweighed by the promise of future wins. Example: you bet on whether or not there will be bees in the park, and it turns out that there aren't any except for some toy bees being sold by the park vendor, so the better who bet that there would be bees cites the toy bees as proof that there were bees in the park, violating the spirit of the bet but not the explicit terms, so during the dispute the spirit-consistent better offers to double-down with a new additional bet to the terms-consistent better: that there **won't** be a dispute the next time they bet. The terms-consistent better will think it's guaranteed for a dispute to arise again, and so accepts the bet at high odds. The next time the two bet, the spirit-consistent better just needs to accept whatever betting verdict the terms-consistent better decides upon, and thereby win the previous doubled bet, profiting in the end. A few rounds of this, and the two will reach an equilibrium.

This is an excellent post. I have been doing bets with my 4y old daughter already as well (and I am following your projects for a quite some time already)!

Honestly... parenting goals!

I've appreciated your parenting posts, thank you for sharing. Curious if you can share any resources you've found helpful for raising kids? Anything helps, as you seem to be creative in this department.

I've been making bets with my just-turned-5yo for about a year now to put a stop to arguments. I wholeheartedly endorse using bonds as well, and I intend to do so, though I wouldn't have thought of it on my own (having never really been exposed to the concept before). Thanks for that!

What other financial tools can we adapt in this way?

Yes! Bets – and even just 'modeling' owning-up to being wrong – are wonderful tools, especially for children (as they haven't learned that most people avoid them).

This 'area' came up (in my mind) most recently in a disagreement about something my child was taught in school. We didn't bet tho and the outcome turned out to neither fully support either 'side' – but that's a good opportunity too for learning about disagreement and updating on new evidence.

I haven't yet spotted an opportunity for using 'bonds' but now I'll look for them even more vigorously!

I do think there is some risk with this approach that the child will have a bad time just to get the money, or say they are having a bad time and they are actually not, but this isn't something we've run into.

I've run into this – in 'pre-bet' circumstances – but it seemed easy enough to 'strategically dissuade' by expressing skepticism of their sentiments; that's resulted in honest confessions the few times it's come up.

I like this a lot. Most of life's decisions are about managing risk, and the bond strategy both teaches the kid and gives some peace of mind to the parent. There's nothing inherently about wagering, either. Harm only happens when wagering habitually against bad odds; the younger they learn how to calculate their advantage, the better.

Aren't you afraid that this might backfire in some way? They seem to be rather trusting of your bets, so later on they might become too trusting when it comes to betting larger amounts of money. They might be tricked into taking on a bet that's too much in favor of the opposite side, because they learned from you that they could trust willingness to bet, even though that might not translate to other people.

I'm confused which lesson you think they might be erroneously learning from me? When I offer them bets they do usually lose.

Well, to strengthen Wilco's point: With teaching kids, there are always a lot of failure modes. Example: They might not understand the reason they are losing the bet, not make the causal connection, learn to guess the teacher's password, not calibrate correctly on it, learn to spot the intention instead of the method, or whatever else might go wrong. As a culture, we have not much practice for applying betting in practice and much less teaching it to kids. So I think the skepticism is reasonable.

That said I think almost all of these can be fixed by varying the bets and the context in which they occur, talking about it, and repeating when they grow older i.e. not assuming they got it the first time around. 

The repeating when they grow older comes naturally when you have more than one kid, This causes the younger ones to learn many thing much earlier then their older ones and the older ones can learn thing much more deeply from multiple repetitions. 

Super awesome that your parenting style actually gives your children agency! Not that I'm a parent, but not belittling or not respecting that children can make informed, rational decisions is something we as a society do all the time and we need to strive to do better:)

Thanks! More in this direction: Growing Independence