Storytime split

5th July, 2008

My husband and I both have fairly demanding jobs, and we also have two children under the age of five. Bedtime is sometimes fulfilling, but more often exhausting and aggravating. Most of the work – especially the stories and the staring at the ceiling waiting for the children to fall asleep – is best done alone. So how should we share the chore?

Taking it in turns seems obvious, but what about when one partner is particularly tired already? Should we be holding an auction or something?
Sophie Jamieson

Dear Sophie,

Your problem is surprisingly subtle. Simply taking turns is inefficient, since that may mean the wearier party being faced with the chore. But a more discretionary system of side-payments is complex, and may be corrupted if one of you feigns exhaustion when in fact you simply fancy a glass of wine and a bit of TV.

Such situations are common. For example, a price-fixing cartel faces a trade-off between rigid profit-sharing rules and complex schemes to trade market share. The general problem has been analysed in the formidably mathematical research of Professor Susan Athey. She finds that less efficient but simpler schemes often – but not always – pay off. So you should indeed take turns, and if that is occasionally sub-optimal, tough luck.

Please note that Athey also has two children under the age of five.

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