Children with more self-control turn into healthier and wealthier adults
25 Jan 11
Young children’s self-control skills — such as conscientiousness,
self-discipline and perseverance — predict their health, wealth and criminal
history in later life regardless of IQ or social background, according to latest
findings out of the Dunedin
An international team led by Professors Avshalom Caspi and Terrie
Moffitt, both of Duke University and King’s College London, and
Professor Richie Poulton of the University of Otago carried out the
research, which provides the first hard evidence that childhood
self-control does influence adult outcomes in the general population.
findings suggest that even small improvements in self-control for
children and adolescents could yield important reductions in costs of
healthcare, welfare dependency, and crime to a nation. The research is
published today in the prestigious US-based journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS).
researchers assessed the self-control of more than 1000 people born in
Dunedin between 1972-1973 during the first decade of their life and
then examined their health outcomes, wealth outcomes and criminal
conviction history at age 32.
Professor Moffitt says that even
after accounting for study members’ differences in social status and
IQ, children as young as three who scored lower on measures of
self-control were more likely than children with higher self-control to
have the following outcomes as adults:
- Physical health
problems (including poorer lung function, sexually transmitted
infections, obesity, high blood pressure, bad cholesterol, dental
- Substance dependence (including tobacco, alcohol, cannabis, and harder drugs)
- Difficulty with financial planning (including savings habits, home ownership, investments, retirement plans)
with credit and money management (including bankruptcy, missed
payments, credit card problems, living from paycheque to paycheque)
- Rearing a child in a single-parent household
- A criminal conviction record
we also found that children whose self-control increased with age
tended to have better adult outcomes than initially predicted, showing
that self-control can change and with desirable results,” Professor
The results also suggest that like a rising tide
that lifts all boats, all children — even those who already have above
average self-control — could reap later rewards from universal
interventions designed to improve such skills, especially in childhood
but also in adolescence, she says.
“This is a highly uplifting
message. Not only could the most vulnerable children have a better
chance at a happy and healthy life, there is the potential for
across-the-board benefits in personal, social and economic well-being.”
Moffitt says the research indicates that low self-control makes
children vulnerable to “snares” that could have life-long impacts on
their health, wealth and well-being.
“These children tended to
have difficulties while they were adolescents, including starting to
smoke tobacco, becoming a teen parent of an unplanned baby, and leaving
secondary school with no qualification.”
accounted for the low self-control children’s poor adult outcomes in
part, but even low-self control children who were non-smoking,
non-parent, high-school graduates still had poorer outcomes at age 32,
“Our research singles out children’s self-control as a
clear target for prevention policy, apart from all other influential
features of children’s backgrounds, such as their family life,
socio-economic status or the child’s intelligence.”
Moffitt says the challenge now is to develop interventions specifically
focused on improving self-control skills that can be offered on a
universal basis to young people.
“There have been some promising
small model projects in this area, but much more work needs to be done
to come up with something that could be applied on a wide scale with a
good cost-benefit ratio,” she says.
Professors Caspi and Moffitt
are currently visiting the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and
Development Research Unit as theme leaders in the Study’s age 38
assessment data collection phase.
The work for this study was supported through funding from the Health Research Council of New Zealand.
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