From a very early age, some children exhibit better self-control than others. Now, a new study has tracked how low self control can predict poor health, money troubles and even a criminal record in their adult years.
The study began with 1,000 children in New Zealand. Researchers followed them for decades. They observed the level of self-control the youngsters displayed. Parents, teachers, even the kids themselves, scored the youngsters on measures like "acting before thinking" and "persistence in reaching goals."
The children of the study are now adults in their thirties. Terrie Moffitt of Duke University found that kids with self-control issues tended to grow up to become adults with a far more troubling set of issues to deal with.
"The children who had the lowest self-control when they were age three to 10, early years, later on had the most health problems in their thirties," Moffitt said, "and they had the worst financial situation. They were more likely to have a criminal record and to be raising a child as a single parent on a very low income."
Moffitt explained that self-control problems were widely observed, and weren’t just a feature of a small group of misbehaving kids.
"Even the children who had above-average self-control as pre-schoolers, could have benefited from more self-control training. They could have improved their financial situation and their physical and mental health situation 30 years later."
So, children with minor self-control problems were likely as adults to have minor health problems, and so on.
Moffitt said it’s still unclear why some children have better self-control than others, though other researchers have found that it's mostly a learned behavior, with relatively little genetic influence. But good self-control can run in families because children with good self-control are more likely to grow up to be healthy and prosperous parents.
"Whereas some of the low-self-control study members are more likely to be single parents with a very low income and the parent is in poor health and likely to be a heavy substance abuser," said Moffitt. "So that's not a good atmosphere for a child. So it looks as though self-control is something that in one generation can disadvantage the next generation."
But the good news, according to Moffitt, is that self-control can be taught by parents, and through school curricula that have been shown to be effective.