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Childhood Self-Control Predicts Adult Health, Wealth & Life Satisfaction

The intelligent desire self-control; children want candy.
- Rumi

Many parents are invested in helping support their children achieve academically or in various extra-curricular activities.

Despite well-intentioned, sometimes exhausting efforts along these lines, making progress in life requires more than intelligence, talent or yes, even money.

Research has repeatedly found that there’s another, more powerful predictor of success: the trait of self-control.

Nature or nurture?

Personal differences in level of self-control can be detected in early childhood. But where does it come from?

In figuring out the origin story, there are generally three possibilities: genetic, shared environments, and nonshared environments among siblings.

Shared environments like parenting style or socio-economic level, help make siblings alike. Nonshared environments or experiences, different from other siblings of the same household, help make them different.

In researching genetic and environmental influences on levels of self-control, Beaver, et al. (2009) report that between 50 and 90% of self-regulation, self-control and impulsivity can be attributed to genetic factors.

The ability to self-regulate is embedded in the structure and functioning of our brains – specifically the prefrontal cortex. Many studies have linked our genes to brain formation.

Beaver and team studied twins and found that after controlling for genes, the balance of self-control is influenced by nonshared environments, finding that shared environment did not significantly influence the development of self-control.

That explains why two biological children from the same family are often very different. Same household, different brains.

It’s in this biological wiring that early differences in base self-control can be found. It’s also this foundation with which socialization and life experiences interact forming a basic propensity towards high or low self-control at a young age.

Self-control out-predicts IQ for academic success

Researchers Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman (2005) studied middle school students and discovered that self-control out-predicted talent when it comes to academic success in adolescents.

Specifically, students with higher self-control had better grades and standardized test scores. They were also absent from school less often, spent more time studying, and spent less time procrastinating and watching TV.

Kids that were better able to manage their attention, their emotions and their behavior when distraction and temptation abounds did better in school than even the smart kids. Self-control aided the ability to focus and take advantage of more opportunities to learn, leading to increased success.

Since that time, longitudinal studies have both affirmed and extended what is known about the significant and broad long-term benefits of the trait of self-control.

All of it, pointing to evidence that self-control developed in childhood pays dividends for decades to come.

Long-term study on childhood self-control

An incredible long-term research study showed how childhood differences in self-control - measured during the first ten years of life – was predictive of life outcomes decades later.

Known as the Dunedin Study, Terrie E. Moffitt and team from Duke University, studied and tracked 1,000 children in Dunedin, New Zealand, for nearly 40 years.

Moffitt et al. (2011) measured persistence, attention span and impulse control, among others gauges of childhood self-control from birth through their 30’s.

Self-control in childhood predicted teenage mistakes

The earlier self-control can be taught or encouraged, the better.

The study highlighted that the results of having, or not having, early childhood self-control doesn’t wait until adulthood to show the negative effects.

The researchers found that the lack of early self-control predicted teenage mistakes or ‘snares’ – some with serious life repercussions like beginning to smoke, dropping out of school or unplanned parenthood.

The study found that the more mistakes made as teens, the greater odds of negative adult outcomes.

Childhood self-control strongly predicts adult success

The study found that self-control exhibited in young children, regardless of gender, strongly predicted adult success and life quality.

In fact, childhood self-control was as big a predictor of adult success as intelligence or family wealth, making the trait of self-control the ultimate equalizer.

In a high-IQ job pool, soft skills like discipline, drive and empathy mark those who emerge as outstanding.
– Daniel Goleman

Self-control in childhood predicted adult wealth

Dunedin researchers found that exhibited self-control during early childhood predicted their adult personal financial situation.

Kids with more self-control went on to have more prestigious occupations, higher incomes, better savings habits and increased financial security.

Those with lower childhood self-control went on to struggle with finances as adults. They earned less and accumulated less wealth, including lower rates of home ownership, investments or retirement savings. They also had higher rates of dependence on social programs.

Greater self-control as children translated to better adult credit ratings, where those with low self-control tended to later be regarded as credit risks.

Self-control in childhood predicted adult health

Moffitt and team also discovered that the ability to self-regulate during the first decade of life also predicted adult physical and mental health.

Lower self-control in kids also translated to significantly higher rates of drug or alcohol addiction as adults, as well as to more overall substances.

Self-control in childhood predicted adult criminal record

Keeping with the trend, the study uncovered that having lower childhood self-control increased the likelihood of having an adult criminal record.

Of the once-children tracked all those years in the study, 5% spent time behind bars. Of those, in excess of 80% came from the study’s lowest self-control groups.

Childhood self-control & later parenting success

A fascinating discovery that came out of such a long study was the impact of childhood self-control on that child’s future child.

The team followed these kids and adults through to their own parenting practices decades later.

In evaluating parenting quality, family psychologists evaluated participants on parental affection and responsiveness to a child’s needs.

The people with the poorest self-control as children turned out to be the least proficient of those that went on to become parents. In this way, low self-control can have a far-reaching and negative generational impact.

Emotional self-control – delaying gratification and stifling impulsiveness - underlies accomplishment of every sort.
– Daniel Goleman

Childhood self-control, life trajectory & life satisfaction

Incredibly, study authors saw totally different adult life outcomes for those children that exhibited high vs. low self-control before the age of 10.

After controlling for gender, family wealth and intelligence, it was childhood self-control that predicted better health, more wealth, less crime and better parenting.

It even predicted happiness.

Nearly 9 out of 10 of the kids with high self-control, decades on, felt satisfied with their adult lives.

Intentionally developing this incredible trait in kids

Some of the things our kids are already doing have shown to help enhance self-control - music lessons, learning a second language and martial arts, among them.

The results of the Dunedin study inspired me to get serious.

In my home this summer I am teaching an organization and time management course to a class of one: my incoming high school freshman. It’s going exactly how you think it is.

Perhaps something is being picked up subconsciously and someday it will magically all click into place. All I can hope is that repetitive practice now will be replaced with effortless habits later - just like parental resentment now will someday, hopefully, give way to appreciation.

Considering the role it will play in her future, and even her children’s future, it’s worth way more than a shot.

I think of discipline as the continual everyday process of helping a child learn self-discipline.
– Fred Rogers


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