Behave Yourself

Lack of childhood self-control has bad consequences


A recent study has found that children as young as three who have little self-control are more likely to have health problems, a chemical dependency, financial troubles, or a criminal record by the time they reach adulthood.

A group of researchers led by Duke psychologists Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi evaluated data from a longitudinal study of more than 1,000 children in New Zealand. They measured a lack of self-control using several criteria: low tolerance for frustration, lack of persistence in reaching goals, difficulty sticking with a task, being overly active, acting before thinking, difficulty waiting one’s turn, being restless, or not being conscientious. The children were assessed by teachers, parents, and other observers, in addition to filling out self-assessments.

By age thirty-two, the study subjects scoring lowest for self-control scored highest for things like breathing problems, sexually transmitted disease, and high cholesterol and blood pressure. They also had more difficulty saving money, owning a home, or managing credit-card debt. They were more likely to be single parents, have a criminal record, or be dependent on alcohol, tobacco, or drugs.

Yet the study participants who found a way to improve their self-control as they aged fared better in adulthood than their childhood scores would have predicted. Self-control is something that can be taught, the researchers say, and doing so could save taxpayers money on health care, criminal justice, and substance-abuse problems down the road.

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