This is an era in American society in which we have stressed the importance of raising children with lots of self-esteem — praising every project, picture, and athletic effort they make from the time a child can speak. But maybe there is something to be said for a little old-fashioned child rearing. Telling the kids to sit down, behave, and use indoor voices in a restaurant may not keep them as happy as letting them run wild would, but in the long run, it may be well worth it.
According to a new study at Duke University in Raleigh, North Carolina, children who display more self-control in their younger years grow up to become more financially responsible, productive, and even healthier members of society. In fact, self-discipline was shown to have roughly as much influence as major life-affecting factors such as IQ and socioeconomic background.
The research was part of a 32-year study of nearly 1,000 New Zealanders who were tracked from birth well into adulthood. The scientists obtained information on each child’s level of self-control by questioning their parents, teachers, peers, and the children themselves. The key abilities considered were whether they think before taking action, how they handle frustration, if they typically complete tasks and attempt to reach goals, how easily they can wait their turn, and whether they are conscientious.
The determination was that even a child as young as 3 could display some self-discipline in the form of concentrating on the particular game or puzzle with which they are playing, not giving up until it is finished, alternating turns pleasantly with someone else, and deriving happiness out of its completion. The children who lacked self-control might not want to be bothered with playing, give up in the middle, and express frustration and anger if success does not come easily.
Although age appropriate behavior can sometimes make it tougher to distinguish self-control in the preschool years1, it should be much clearer by the time a child is starting kindergarten. Parents can be clued in to a problem when a child has trouble getting through homework assignments and staying with a task from beginning to end. They will most likely also get feedback from teachers about the child’s lack of focus, inability to follow directions, or tendency to cause classroom disruptions.
Unfortunately, when these issues begin in early childhood, the study showed they are often unresolved and follow through into maturity. A mere seven percent of the participants managed to improve their self-control scores significantly as they aged. The vast majority remained exactly where they were as preschoolers; those with plenty of self-control as children still showed up with the most as adults, and those with the least in childhood also lacked self-discipline years later.
The volunteers with the lowest measures of self-control were negatively affected in numerous areas of their lives. They had a much greater incidence of health issues such as high blood pressure, weight problems, and gum disease than their counterparts with more self-control. They were also more likely to be single parents, have drug or alcohol addictions, been convicted of a crime, and have poor credit or problems with money.
Patterns are hard to break, but better to start while kids are young enough to absorb the changes and still have a chance to develop some self-discipline. Controlling a child too much won’t help the situation — they must be empowered to make some of their own decisions. Children need guidance and to learn to trust in themselves that they will make good choices to eventually become well-functioning adults. It’s a pretty scary notion to think about a bunch of maladjusted little rugrats who believe they are the center of the universe one day becoming captains of industry and world leaders! Heaven help us! If that were to happen, the world would look much like it does today.
1 Seefeldt, C., Wasik, B.A. “Behavioral Expectations in the Preschool Classroom.” Education.com. (Excerpt from Early Education: Three, Four, and Five Year Olds Go to School, by C. Seefeldt, B.A. Wasik, 2006 edition, p. 56-58). 3 April 2011.
< http://www.studygs.net/citation.htm >.