Researchers in New Zealand published a study that analyzed data from 1,000 children and tracked them until they were 32 years old. They measured the children’s levels of self-control starting at age 3 using assessments by teachers, parents and the kids themselves. What they found was that the kids with the most self-control at age 3 went on to earn more money and have better health by age 32. Those with the least self control were more likely to drop out of school, get pregnant as teens, smoke, be unemployed, break the law, have more sexually transmitted diseases, and they were more likely to be overweight and have high cholesterol and blood pressure. A similar study looked at 500 pairs of fraternal twins in Britain and found that the sibling with lower self control at age 5 was more likely to smoke, perform poorly in school and exhibit antisocial behaviour by the age of 12.
The researchers describe self control as being able to manage and regulate our impulses and the choices and decisions we make. Kids with poor self control have a low tolerance for frustration, a lack of persistance in achieving goals, difficulty sticking to a task, impulsivity, restlessness and difficulty taking turns. A child with good self control takes the time to finish a game or puzzle and can take turns with others, plus they get satisfaction from doing so. The lead author on the study, Terrie Moffitt of Duke University, was quoted as saying, “Self-control is vital for scanning the horizon to be prepared for what might happen to you, for planning ahead to where you want to go, for getting along with other people and attracting their help and support, and for waiting for the really good things that are worth waiting for, instead of jumping in for short-term fun. We all use self-control every day but some of us use it in a more skillful way than others.”
The good news in all of this is that you can teach kids to have better self-control. Here are suggestions from the National Association of School Psychologists in the U.S.
Try simple goals first: For preschool children, appropriate goals might include not interrupting or not
fighting with siblings. For early elementary school children, goals
might include complying with bedtime rules or showing anger appropriately
(instead of hitting or screaming).
‘ Take a break: Encourage children to ‘take a break’ or a ‘time out’ from a
situation where they are feeling angry or upset.
‘ Teach and provide attention: Children can learn to resist interrupting others
by learning how to observe when others are not talking, so that they can join
in appropriately. Be sure to provide children with attention at appropriate
times so that they are not ‘starved’ for attention and more likely to interrupt
‘ Use appropriate rewards: Children need consistent, positive feedback to
learn appropriate behavior. Praise and attention are highly rewarding for
young children, as is special time with a parent. Be sure your child knows
what behavior is desired!