Kids who scored low on assessments of self-control as toddlers were more likely to have adult difficulties including health problems, alcohol and drug dependence, financial problems and a criminal record, a new study shows.
The research, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tracked a socioeconomically diverse group of 1,037 children in New Zealand from birth to age 32. Kids were assessed on measures of self-control by parents, researchers and teachers every few years during childhood. They also completed self-assessments.
Some 96% of the original participants were evaluated at age 32. Even after accounting for differences in social class, intelligence and home life, kids with lower self-control scores at age three were more likely to have adult health problems such as sexually-transmitted diseases, gum disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and excess weight, the study found. Among kids who scored in the highest 20% on self-control measures, 11% had multiple health problems in adulthood, compared to 27% of kids who scored in the lowest 20% on self-control measures.
Kids with low self-control were also more likely to later be dependent on drugs or alcohol, to have lower annual incomes, to be single parents and to have been convicted of a crime. The researchers also separately sampled fraternal twins in the U.K. and found that the sibling with lower self-control scores at age five was more likely to start smoking, to earn bad grades in school and to show antisocial behaviors at age 12, supporting the notion that self-control isn’t simply dependent on family situation.
“Self-control is a vital skill for scanning the horizon to be prepared for what might happen to you, for envisaging your own future possibilities, for planning ahead to get where you want to go, for controlling your temper when life frustrates you, for getting along with other people and attracting their help and support and for waiting for the really good things that are worth waiting for, instead of jumping for short-term enticements,” write the Duke University psychologists who led the research, Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi, in an e-mail.
Scientists have known for a while that self-control affects behavioral development, says Jay Belsky, a professor in the department of human and community development at the University of California, Davis, who wasn’t involved in the research. But the study breaks new ground is by showing that self-control affects “a diverse array of long-term, real-world developmental outcomes” such as health or the ability to stay in a relationship or keep finances in check, he says.
Moffitt and Caspi say that while children tend to improve their self-control skills as they get older, they’re also likely to keep their relative position. So if a child trails his peers in self-control, he’s also likely to be behind his adult peers.
Still, there were some exceptions — 7% of the children in the study “improved markedly,” Moffitt and Caspi say. The relative improvement in self-control likely stemmed from a variety of individual circumstances, such as a good school or changed family situation that improved structure in their lives, they say.
Belsky says that research shows infants and kids who develop secure attachments to parents and caregivers learn early on “my actions have consequences and I can manage and regulate those reactions,” which is key to developing self-control.
The new paper notes that programs aimed at improving self-control in kids or teens could help improve rates of disease, crime and welfare dependency. Some programs have shown positive results, but larger-scale, less-focused and longer-term efforts haven’t been as successful, Moffitt and Caspi say. “The decisive answer is not in yet, and more programs should be designed, and evaluated rigorously,” they say.
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