TORONTO — Children who display self-control problems as young as three are far more likely to become addicts and criminals, have bad credit, lower incomes and more health problems in later life that their disciplined peers, new research shows.
“The interpretation of the statistical analyses in the paper is that . . . children with the worst self-control were three times more likely to have all of the poor outcomes, as compared to children with the best self-control,” says Duke University psychologist Terrie Moffitt.
“Self-control is a vital skill for scanning the horizon to be prepared for what might happen to you,” says Moffitt, the lead study author.
The study, published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, followed some 1,000 New Zealand children from birth to age 32.
It showed that children for whom school records and parental and self-reporting indicated low self-control fared much more poorly as adults on average, regardless of their IQs or socio-economic status.
Study researchers also assessed the children’s self-control at ages 1, 5, 7, 9 and 11, based on such things as frustration tolerance, persistence in reaching goals, ability to stick with tasks or to wait a turn and general restlessness levels.
By adulthood, Moffitt says, the 200 children with the lowest self-control were at strikingly greater risk for a number of adult problems than the 200 most self-disciplined.
For example, rates for multiple health problems stood at 27 per cent for the lowest cohort compared with 11 per cent for the top.
Likewise, addiction rates stood at 10 per cent for the control-challenged kids compared to three per cent for the disciplined, while criminal conviction rates were 43 per cent compared to 13 per cent respectively.
As well, 32 per cent of the least disciplined children were earning incomes of less than $20,000 as adults, while only 10 per cent of the self controlled group were in that low bracket.
While children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder can suffer extreme self-discipline control, Moffitt says her study looked at a wide cross-section of “normal” children without a psychiatric diagnosis.
She says there are currently no scientifically proven programs that have been shown to improve self-discipline in children.
But Moffitt says some experts suggest parents can use allowance money as a means of reining in compulsiveness and instilling an ability to plan longer term in their kids.
She says parents might speak to their children when doling out allowance and encourage them to make it last through all the goods and events they will want to spend it on in the coming week.
“Using pocket money to teach self-control skills takes advantage of the very strong reinforcing power of money,” Moffitt said in an email interview.
“And it is a chance for parents to convey to their child that they have confidence in the child’s ability to manage money wisely.
“Parental approval is a very strong re-enforcer too.”