Self-control—the ability to regulate our attention, emotions and behaviors—emerges in childhood and grows throughout life, but the skill varies widely among individuals. Studies show that focus and self-control can be linked to future success, and that these skills can be learned and improved upon from childhood to adulthood. Below is an excerpt from Scientific American discussing the importance of learning how to focus and improve self-control and its impact on our children’s success as adults.
A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA tying childhood self-control to health and well-being in adulthood suggests that everyone, not just those most lacking the skill, would benefit from a self-control boost.
Psychologist Terrie E. Moffitt of Duke University and her team focused on the self-control of a group of 1,037 children born in 1972 and 1973 in Dunedin, New Zealand. The investigators observed the children and took reports from parents and teachers every two years from the ages of three to 11. They evaluated the kids’ attention, persistence and impulsiveness in a variety of settings to determine each child’s level of self-control. Finally, when these New Zealanders reached the age of 32, the researchers assessed their health, financial stability and court records.
The study found that children with lower self-control were more likely as adults to have poor health, be single parents, depend on drugs or alcohol, have difficulties with money and possess a criminal record.
In addition to surveying and ruling out intelligence and socioeconomic status as possible explanations, the team explored whether differences in upbringing could play a role. To test this idea, the Duke researchers turned to 509 pairs of British twins born in 1994 and 1995. The team appraised the twins’ self-control at age five. The sibling who had less self-control was more likely to begin smoking, behave badly and struggle in school at age 12.
Moffitt notes that within the Dunedin group, the more self-control a child had, the better off he or she was as an adult. “Even children who are above average on self-control could have improved life outcomes if they increase their self-control skills,” Moffitt says. Programs that teach self-control—in school settings, for example—are effective. Thus, the Duke team posits, intervening during childhood could give all kids a better future.