Out of Control Kids Grow Up to Be Less Successful Adults
Parenting is difficult. You want your child to have the best of everything the world has to offer, and sometimes this translates into providing less discipline than you should in an effort to keep your child happy. But discipline and self-control does not only benefit a child while they are young; researchers have found that children, even as early as age 3, who have the most self control are more likely to grow up to be healthier, wealthier, and more successful adults.
Children With Self-Discipline Stick to Tasks, Don't Act Impulsively
An international research team led by Duke University psychologists Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi analyzed data on more than 1,000 New Zealand children born between 1972 and 1973 in measures such as low frustration tolerance, lacking of persistence in reaching goals, difficulty sticking with a task, overactivity and impulsivity. Teachers, parents, observers, and the children themselves all provided input into the measures.
Those children were followed into adulthood and the researchers found that those scoring lowest on measures of self-control were more likely to have health problems such as breathing difficulty, gum disease, sexually transmitted diseases, inflammation, obesity, high cholesterol, and elevated blood pressure by the time they reached age 32. They were also more likely to have substance dependence, drop out of school, be single parents, and have a criminal record.
The impulsivity and relative inability to think about the long-term also affected the lower self-control individuals financially. They had less in savings, fewer owned homes, and they tended to have high credit card debt.
To further corroborate the importance of self-control, Caspi and Moffitt ran the same analysis on a sample of 500 pairs of fraternal twins in Britain. Siblings with lower self-control scores at age 5 were more likely than their more controlled brother or sister to begin smoking, perform poorly in school and engage in antisocial behavior at age 12.
“Self-control is vital for scanning the horizon to be prepared for what might happen to you,” said Moffitt. “We all use it every day, but some of us use it in a more skillful way than others.”
But the good news is that self-control is something that can be taught, so participants could change their life course by improving these behaviors. But first, what counts for appropriate self-control? Is a temper tantrum in a toddler a sign of lack of control? “Only if it happens frequently and in many situations,” the researchers say.
"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," Moffitt said. "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 crying or fussing, instead of feeling satisfied."
Should we follow the advice “Spare the rod, spoil the child”? No, parents who are over-controlling or inappropriate with discipline measures are also doing their children a disservice by not teaching self-discipline skills so the children can become independent.
W. Douglas Tynan PhD ABPP writes suggestions for how to help kids learn to control their own behavior on KidsHealth.org:
Up to Age 2: Infants and toddlers get frustrated by the large gap between the things they want to do and what they're able to do, so they often respond with temper tantrums. Try to prevent outbursts by distracting your little one with toys or other activities. For kids reaching the 2-year-old mark, try a brief timeout in a designated area to show the consequences for outbursts and teach that it's better to take some time alone instead of throwing a tantrum.
Ages 3 to 5: You can continue to use timeouts, but rather than enforcing a specific time limit, end timeouts once your child has calmed down. This helps kids improve their sense of self-control. And praise your child for not losing control in frustrating or difficult situations.
Ages 6 to 9: As kids enter school, they're better able to understand the idea of consequences and that they can choose good or bad behavior. It may help your child to imagine a stop sign that must be obeyed and think about a situation before responding. Encourage your child to walk away from a frustrating situation for a few minutes to cool off instead of having an outburst.
Ages 10 to 12: Older kids usually better understand their feelings. Encourage them to think about what's causing them to lose control and then analyze it. Explain that sometimes the situations that are upsetting at first don't end up being so awful. Urge kids to take time to think before responding to a situation.
And model good self-control yourself, says Dr. Tynan. If you're in an irritating situation and your kids are present, tell them why you're frustrated and then discuss the potential solutions to the problem. For example, if you've misplaced your keys, instead of getting upset, tell your kids the keys are missing and then search for them together. If they don't turn up, take the next constructive step such as retracing your steps when you last had the keys in-hand. Show that good emotional control and problem solving are the ways to deal with a difficult situation.