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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

Measuring Self-Control continued...

In the study, 7% of participants significantly improved their self-control, perhaps because they attended schools that stressed structure and achievement or because they experienced significant changes in family life, like a single parent getting remarried.

Additionally, in a separate study conducted in the U.K., Moffitt and her team followed 500 pairs of fraternal twins that have been tracked from birth to age 12. Though the children were raised in the same home environment, siblings with lower self-discipline scores at age 5 were more likely than their brother or sister to start smoking, have difficulty academically in school, and engage in antisocial behaviors by age 12.

Self-Control in Preschoolers

So what exactly does self-control look like in a 3-year-old?

“A 3-year-old with good self-control can focus on a puzzle or game and stick with it until he solves it, take turns working on the puzzle nicely with another child, and get satisfaction from solving it, with a big smile,” writes Moffitt. “A child with poor self-control might refuse to play with anything that required any effort of him, might leave the puzzle in the middle to run around the room, might lose his temper and throw the puzzle at the other child, and might end up in tears, instead of feeling satisfied.”

Other experts put it more simply: “Can you stop, think, and then act. That’s it in a nutshell,” says McClelland, who is also the mother of a 2-year-old.

She admits that it can be tough for parents to judge when a squirmy preschooler needs help with self-control or if their behavior is normal and on-target for success.

“It can be hard early on with young kids because they’re still developing these skills,” she says.

She tests young children by playing a game of reverse Simon says. She explains the rules, that she wants the kids to listen and then do the opposite of what she asks.

For example, she might ask a child, “Simon says stand up” when she really wants them to sit down.

The better they can do that, she says, the more self-control they are probably developing.

But by age 4 or 5, when children begin to make the transition to a more structured kindergarten or classroom environment, some behaviors should be noted by parents and teachers.

Advice for Parents

McClelland advises parents to pay attention to repeated comments from teachers that a child has a hard time focusing or following simple directions, that they are disruptive in class.

Parents should also be wary when kids start multiple projects that they can’t finish or if they can’t keep themselves on task when given a school assignment.

Interestingly, very controlling parents may be doing their kids a disservice when it comes to self-discipline.

“There’s some evidence that when parents are too controlling, the children are not developing self-control themselves,” McClelland says. “You have to be sensitive but with very clear limits and boundaries. You have to be a broken record -- very consistent.”

She adds that parents of toddlers who encourage problem-solving and autonomy ultimately end up with kids that have better self-control.

“These are malleable skills. We can do something to improve these skills and really make a difference in a person’s life,” she says.

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