Childhood self-control predicts adult health and wealth

January 24, 2011, Duke University

A long-term study has found that children who scored lower on measures of self-control as young as age 3 were more likely to have health problems, substance dependence, financial troubles and a criminal record by the time they reached age 32.

Self-control in the more than 1,000 New Zealand children who participated in the study was assessed by teachers, parents, observers and the children themselves. It included measures like "low frustration tolerance, lacks persistence in reaching goals, difficulty sticking with a task, over-active, acts before thinking, has difficulty waiting turn, restless, not conscientious."

Fast-forward to adulthood, and the kids scoring lowest on those measures scored highest for things like breathing problems, gum disease, sexually transmitted disease, inflammation, overweight, and high cholesterol and blood pressure, according to an international research team led by Duke University psychologists Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi.

The impulsivity and relative inability to think about the long-term of the lower self-control individuals gave them more difficulty with finances, like savings, home ownership and . They also were more likely to be single parents, have a record, and be dependent on , tobacco, cannabis and harder drugs.

"These adult outcomes were predictable across the entire spectrum of self-control scores, from low to high," Moffitt said.

Yet study participants who somehow found a way to improve their self-control as they aged fared better in adulthood than their childhood scores would have predicted. Self-control is something that can be taught, the researchers say, and doing so could save taxpayers a pile of money on health care, criminal justice and substance abuse problems down the road.

To further corroborate the importance of self-control, Caspi and Moffitt ran the same analysis on a sample of 500 pairs of fraternal twins in Britain and found that the sibling with lower self-control scores at age 5 was more likely than their sibling to begin smoking, perform poorly in school and engage in antisocial behaviors at age 12. "This shows that self-control is important by itself, apart from all other factors that siblings share, such as their parents and home life," Caspi said.

The New Zealand children with low-self control were more likely to make poor choices as adolescents, including taking up smoking, having unplanned pregnancies and dropping out of school. Naturally, this set them on a more difficult path. Even the low self-control individuals who finished high school as non-smokers without kids showed poorer outcomes at age 32.

And because of a greater likelihood of single-parent status and limited income, it's also apparent that "one generation's low self-control puts the next generation at a disadvantage as well," Moffitt said.

"The good news is that self-control can change. People can change," said Alexis Piquero, a professor of criminology at Florida State University who was not involved in the research.

Piquero, who studies the developmental roots of criminal behavior, said there are many time-tested approaches that give parents and teachers the tools to teach self-control. The successful programs practice decision-making, role-playing and learning the consequences of actions.

"Identifying low as early as possible and doing prevention and intervention is so much cheaper" than dealing with prisons, drug programs and personal economic failures, Piquero said. "If you're just making a dollars-and-cents decision, it's a no-brainer."

More information: The study appears this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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3 / 5 (2) Jan 24, 2011
I agree that self control needs to be taught. I think it is pretty obvious that self control is very important in daily life, and this study helps to confirm this. I don't think I have much faith in the public schools to do this though... I guess this one is more of a parental duty.
not rated yet Jan 25, 2011
I don't think I have much faith in the public schools to do this though...

Teaching self control is not the task of public schools. That is something parents should teach their children before they enter school.
1 / 5 (1) Jan 25, 2011
I agree that self control needs to be taught. I think it is pretty obvious that self control is very important in daily life, and this study helps to confirm this. I don't think I have much faith in the public schools to do this though... I guess this one is more of a parental duty.

I disagree. As more and more we see the shift of the family play a lesser role in our society, we become more dependent on schools and other sources of information, obviously.

If we use your observation skill, we can say that while most kids are not very good at math, it's a parents duty to teach them.

It's a parents duty to keep them in check, and give them a helping hand, and of course help them learn as much as possible.

But I think one very important factor of the 'education system' is that kids are thought ethics or morals. We shouldn't just EXPECT that they will learn this elsewhere.

This will not only save money long term, but produce a better society to flourish in.
2.1 / 5 (7) Jan 25, 2011
This finding is not new - the emotional intelligence idea long ago established this basic principle. Those children who were able to control their impulses and refrain from eating a second marshmellow were much more likely to have better relationships and hence fare better in life in general.

Further, when one begins to talk about ethics and morals, the bible has long ago addressed this: One of the "fruits of the Spirit" is self-control. Also known as delayed self-gratification, it forms the basis of relationships in that it allows the practising Christian to put others first/esteem others as more important that self and in any case not concern/worry about the next meal or clothes or drink. God will take care of those things anyway - if we practise self-control and follow his commandments.
5 / 5 (2) Jan 25, 2011
Yes, it is truly a wonder that human societies didn't collapse before biblical times! Those poor souls must have been lost with out that single text laying claim to all common sense.
not rated yet Jan 25, 2011
Kevinrtrs, you have 2/5 stars instead of 1/5 stars because I accidentally hit the five stars button. Sorry mate.
not rated yet Jan 27, 2011
God will take care of those things anyway - if we practise self-control and follow his commandments.
Funny how there are so few of us Agnostics and Atheists in prison, in comparison to the general population. And so many Christians are in prison.

Must be something Jehovah is doing to make you guys go wrong and us go right. Or it could be Kevin is full of it as usual.

Oh, Kevin. When was the Flood?


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