A Test of Wills

Can you out-wait a toddler?

Posted Jul 09, 2018

J. Krueger
Hildegard's ruined home on the Disibodenberg
Source: J. Krueger

Cerevisiam bibat! ~ Hildegard von Bingen

On the trail through the woods down from the ruined monastery of Disibodenberg west of Mainz, I passed a mother-daughter pair at a moment of stalemate. Both were coming up the trail. The toddling daughter had fallen behind and reached a state of refusal. She was to hike no more and announced her decision with piercing cries. The mother, already on higher ground, had no mind to turn back and pick up her tyke. Mom, equally defiant, did not wail but stood arms akimbo, which made her look large and determined. Passing her, I offered, “Children always win.” “I am trying,” she replied. When passing the kid, I submitted, “Mommy is waiting; she’s ready for you.” The kid was not amused. Pressing on toward the trail head, I turned around to see if a resolution to the conflict was in offing. It was not. It seemed as though the mother was beginning to buckle, which I had predicted, but I did not stick around to witness the endgame for that would have been indelicate. I did, however, begin to contemplate the game-theoretic elements of this encounter.

This was certainly no Mexican Standoff, but it was not much behind in drama and release of stress hormones. Game theory casts mother and daughter as players. Hard to believe, given the cries and the posturing, both are considered rational – by definition. Both realize they are facing a conflict of interest, both want to prevail, and both use whatever behaviors and emotional displays may serve the cause.

The kid moves first. Her preference is to not go any further, as it is hard, and to be picked up by mom. Being held and carried is better than struggling uphill. Mom demurs. She prefers not to return, not to pick up the kid, and to teach her to hike for herself. These preferences are perfectly incompatible – especially if neither party is willing to compromise and split the difference. With each passing moment, the stress rises for both because every minute spent in stalemate incurs am additional psychological cost. What is more, if one of the two eventually relents, the defeat is felt more keenly. For the other, there may be relief and validation, yet the time leading up to it is exhausting.

According to game theory, a protracted stalemate is the worst outcome. Both know that there must be an eventual reunion and reconciliation. The person who relents is defeated, but the sucker’s outcome of unilateral cooperation is slightly better than the penalty outcome of mutual – and interminable – defection. Yet, the best outcome is to have the other relent. The kid is angling for mom’s parental instincts to prevail, and mom’s banking on the kid’s ultimate desire not to be left behind in the woods. Because both know that the other prefers, however slightly, to relent over prolonged separation, the dilemma is a nasty one. The kid knows that mom will come around, and mom knows the kid will come around. With that knowledge the most unpleasant – and destructive – state of the defective stalemate can go on for long time.

Here, game theory delivers a surprise: if it were the case that both ‘players’ had to choose between cooperation and defection at the same time and without knowledge of the other’s choice, both would cooperate because even unilateral cooperation is better than mutual defection. It is the knowledge of the other and the ability to see her that keeps hope alive that the other might yield first.

Yet, I predicted an asymmetry. Kids always win. If not always, they tend to win with parents who have a conscience and the capacity for empathy. Although these parents might be motivated to lead their children toward independence and toward a willingness to accept small amounts of pain and disappointment, they anticipate their own regrets. Did they perhaps overtax the kid? Did they do emotional damage? Will this experience haunt them in memory? Perhaps evolution has equipped children with a way of knowing this and to use it to their own advantage.

What would I have done? I would have come down the trail to pick the kid up and have her ride on my shoulders. That way, I could walk at my own pace and comfort myself with the knowledge that all kids learn to be independent, eventually. Pretty soon, they run ahead and let you know that you are being too slow.

A less dramatic version of this game is what has informally been called the Freudian stress interview. Freud, and later Carl Rogers, would stoically wait in silence until the client could take it no longer and talk. And lo!, therapeutic authority is affirmed. In the classroom, we can pose a question and wait. Time is on our side. One student will break down and speak, eventually. It is amazing how hard it is, and how sweet the reward. Lovers often muck this up, though, when both wait for the other to make that call. Great relationships have been destroyed by this game. For in love, one shall not be the lord of the other – in contraposition to the classroom. When he or she makes the first call, a bromide says that he or she is the bigger person. Perhaps, but also the weaker one.

J. Krueger
Source: J. Krueger

Hildegard von Bingen, who spent the early years of her spiritual journey on the Disibodenberg, had little to say about power struggles. She counseled compassion and transcendence. Then again, her earthy side had practical advice: Cerevisiam bibat! Drink beer!