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Self-Control in Childhood Brings Adult Success

Children who have good self-control early in life are more likely to grow into healthy, financially secure, and trouble-free adults than those with poor self-discipline, a new study shows.

Jan. 24, 2011 -- Children who have good self-control early in life are more likely to grow into healthy, financially secure, and trouble-free adults than those with poor self-discipline, a new study shows.

The authors of the 32-year study, which has followed a group of almost 1,000 New Zealanders since birth, say the differences between kids who have good self-discipline and those who don’t begin to be apparent in children as young as age 3.

Self-control appears to be so important that it may play an approximately equal role with other well-known influences on a person’s life course, such as intelligence and social class.

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This is the most important, powerful, and dramatic evidence yet available on the powerful benefits that self-control brings throughout life -- and on the terrible price people pay for lacking self-control,” says Roy Baumeister, PhD, professor of psychology at Florida State University in Tallahassee, an expert in self-control who was not involved in the current study.

“These findings support what I have suspected and said for the past decade: Parents should forget about their children's self-esteem and concentrate in instilling self-control,” Baumeister says. “This is an excellent, thorough, well-designed study with utterly convincing results.”

Other experts agree.

“There’s a lot of research being done in this area that is showing that self-regulation is really predicting how well a person does in life,” says Megan M. McClelland, PhD, core director of human development and family sciences at the Hallie Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families at Oregon State University. 

McClelland is studying the relationship between self-control and academic achievement but was also not involved in the current study.

Measuring Self-Control

To assess self-control, researchers asked parents, teachers, friends, and even the children to judge how well the study participants were able to handle frustration, stick to a task, and persist in reaching goals and how often they acted before thinking, had difficulty waiting their turn, or were restless or not conscientious.

Those who scored lowest on self-control measures were significantly more likely than those with high self-control to have chronic health problems like gum disease, high blood pressure, and be overweight. Low-scorers also grew into adults who had difficulty managing money and credit, were more likely to be raising children by themselves, be addicted to alcohol or drugs, or to have a record of criminal convictions.

"These adult outcomes were predictable across the entire spectrum of self-control scores, from low to high," says study researcher Terrie Moffitt, PhD, a psychologist at Duke University.

And those differences persisted even after researchers controlled for things like IQ and social class.

"Individuals tend to keep their rank in the self-control queue, meaning that those who were lowest as kids tend also to be lowest as adults," Moffitt writes. "Very few children break this stable pattern and make notable improvement on self-control."

In the study, 7% of participants significantly improved their self-control, perhaps because they attended schools that stressed structure and achievement or because they experienced significant changes in family life, like a single parent getting remarried.

Additionally, in a separate study conducted in the U.K., Moffitt and her team followed 500 pairs of fraternal twins that have been tracked from birth to age 12. Though the children were raised in the same home environment, siblings with lower self-discipline scores at age 5 were more likely than their brother or sister to start smoking, have difficulty academically in school, and engage in antisocial behaviors by age 12.

Self-Control in Preschoolers

So what exactly does self-control look like in a 3-year-old?

“A 3-year-old with good self-control can focus on a puzzle or game and stick with it until he solves it, take turns working on the puzzle nicely with another child, and get satisfaction from solving it, with a big smile,” writes Moffitt. “A child with poor self-control might refuse to play with anything that required any effort of him, might leave the puzzle in the middle to run around the room, might lose his temper and throw the puzzle at the other child, and might end up in tears, instead of feeling satisfied.”

Other experts put it more simply: “Can you stop, think, and then act. That’s it in a nutshell,” says McClelland, who is also the mother of a 2-year-old.

She admits that it can be tough for parents to judge when a squirmy preschooler needs help with self-control or if their behavior is normal and on-target for success.

“It can be hard early on with young kids because they’re still developing these skills,” she says.

She tests young children by playing a game of reverse Simon says. She explains the rules, that she wants the kids to listen and then do the opposite of what she asks.

For example, she might ask a child, “Simon says stand up” when she really wants them to sit down.

The better they can do that, she says, the more self-control they are probably developing.

But by age 4 or 5, when children begin to make the transition to a more structured kindergarten or classroom environment, some behaviors should be noted by parents and teachers.

Advice for Parents

McClelland advises parents to pay attention to repeated comments from teachers that a child has a hard time focusing or following simple directions, that they are disruptive in class.

Parents should also be wary when kids start multiple projects that they can’t finish or if they can’t keep themselves on task when given a school assignment.

Interestingly, very controlling parents may be doing their kids a disservice when it comes to self-discipline.

“There’s some evidence that when parents are too controlling, the children are not developing self-control themselves,” McClelland says. “You have to be sensitive but with very clear limits and boundaries. You have to be a broken record -- very consistent.”

She adds that parents of toddlers who encourage problem-solving and autonomy ultimately end up with kids that have better self-control.

“These are malleable skills. We can do something to improve these skills and really make a difference in a person’s life,” she says.

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