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Self-Control in Childhood Brings Adult Success

Study Shows Kids Who Have Self-Discipline Grow Up to Be Trouble-Free Adults
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Jan. 24, 2011 -- Children who have good self-control early in life are more likely to grow into healthy, financially secure, and trouble-free adults than those with poor self-discipline, a new study shows.

The authors of the 32-year study, which has followed a group of almost 1,000 New Zealanders since birth, say the differences between kids who have good self-discipline and those who don’t begin to be apparent in children as young as age 3.

Self-control appears to be so important that it may play an approximately equal role with other well-known influences on a person’s life course, such as intelligence and social class.

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This is the most important, powerful, and dramatic evidence yet available on the powerful benefits that self-control brings throughout life -- and on the terrible price people pay for lacking self-control,” says Roy Baumeister, PhD, professor of psychology at Florida State University in Tallahassee, an expert in self-control who was not involved in the current study.

“These findings support what I have suspected and said for the past decade: Parents should forget about their children's self-esteem and concentrate in instilling self-control,” Baumeister says. “This is an excellent, thorough, well-designed study with utterly convincing results.”

Other experts agree.

“There’s a lot of research being done in this area that is showing that self-regulation is really predicting how well a person does in life,” says Megan M. McClelland, PhD, core director of human development and family sciences at the Hallie Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families at Oregon State University. 

McClelland is studying the relationship between self-control and academic achievement but was also not involved in the current study.

Measuring Self-Control

To assess self-control, researchers asked parents, teachers, friends, and even the children to judge how well the study participants were able to handle frustration, stick to a task, and persist in reaching goals and how often they acted before thinking, had difficulty waiting their turn, or were restless or not conscientious.

Those who scored lowest on self-control measures were significantly more likely than those with high self-control to have chronic health problems like gum disease, high blood pressure, and be overweight. Low-scorers also grew into adults who had difficulty managing money and credit, were more likely to be raising children by themselves, be addicted to alcohol or drugs, or to have a record of criminal convictions.

"These adult outcomes were predictable across the entire spectrum of self-control scores, from low to high," says study researcher Terrie Moffitt, PhD, a psychologist at Duke University.

And those differences persisted even after researchers controlled for things like IQ and social class.

"Individuals tend to keep their rank in the self-control queue, meaning that those who were lowest as kids tend also to be lowest as adults," Moffitt writes. "Very few children break this stable pattern and make notable improvement on self-control."

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