A recently-aired documentary on New Zealand’s Dunedin study highlights the importance of teaching self-control to children.
The Dunedin study is a long-running cohort study of 1037 people born over the course of a year between 1972 and 1973 in Dunedin. Its researchers found that 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.
The research provides the first hard evidence that childhood self-control does influence adult outcomes in the general population. The 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 researchers assessed the self-control of the study’s participants during the first decade of their life and then examined their health outcomes, wealth outcomes and criminal conviction history at age 32.
Researcher 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
• Substance dependence
• Difficulty with financial planning
• Difficulty with credit and money management
• Rearing a child in a single-parent household
• A criminal conviction record
The good news is that the researchers also discovered that self-control can be improved in childhood and also adolescence.
By learning self-control, kids can make appropriate decisions and respond to stressful situations in ways that can yield positive outcomes.
Here are a few suggestions on how to help kids learn to control their behaviour:
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. They often respond with temper tantrums.
For kids reaching the 2-year-old mark, try a brief timeout in a designated area — like a kitchen chair or bottom stair — 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 setting 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 behaviour. Encourage your child to walk away from a frustrating situation for a few minutes to cool off instead of having an outburst. Praise kids when they do this.
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. Urge kids to take time to think before responding to a situation. Compliment them as they use their self-control skills.
Ages 13 to 17
Remind teens to think about long-term consequences. If necessary, discipline your teen by taking away certain privileges to reinforce the message that self-control is an important skill. Allow him or her to earn the privileges back by demonstrating self-control.