Childhood Self-Control Is a Predictor of Adult Success, Study Shows

Filed under: In The News, Behavior: Toddlers & Preschoolers

Teaching your child self-control now can mean a healthier future. Credit: Getty

Grating as they may be, most of us are inclined to brush off our preschoolers' tantrums as inconsequential, knowing they'll grow out of it one day.

We would be wrong.

A new study finds the level of self-control one has in childhood is a predictor of one's level of health, substance abuse, personal finances and criminality in adulthood, according to a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers followed 1,000 children in New Zealand from birth to age 32 and found that 3-year-olds who had poor self-control were more likely to have problems in all these areas by the time they were 32, the report says.

Self-control was regularly assessed by parents, teachers, observers and the children themselves, who were asked to consider measures such as frustration tolerance, persistence in reaching goals, ability to stick with a task, activity level, ability to think before acting, ability to wait for a turn, restlessness and conscientiousness, according to the findings.


Decades later, when the children were grown up, those who had scored lowest on those measures were more likely than their peers to have health issues, including breathing problems, gum disease, sexually transmitted diseases, inflammation, being overweight and having high cholesterol and high blood pressure, the report says.

The individuals with lower self-control, who were impulsive and had a diminished ability to think about the long term, had more troubles with finances, including savings, home ownership and credit card debt. They were more likely to be single parents, have criminal convictions and to be dependent on drugs and alcohol than those with higher self-control, the report says. These results held true even after researchers accounted for intelligence, class and mistakes made in adolescence.

The troubles started before adulthood. The children with low self-control were more likely to make poor choices as adolescents, including starting to smoke, having unplanned pregnancies and dropping out of school, the report says.

To further test the findings, the researchers ran the same analysis on 500 pairs of fraternal twins in Britain. They found the twin who had lower self-control when he was 5 was more likely than his sibling to have started smoking, be performing badly in school and be behaving antisocially at age 12 -- despite their shared family background, the study says.

But kids with poor impulse control aren't doomed to a life of trouble. The study participants who managed to increase their self-control as they got older fared better than one would have expected based on their childhood scores, the report says.

In other words, self-control can be learned. The authors suggest early intervention to improve self-control can help at-risk children.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.