Kids who scored low on assessments of self-control as toddlers were more likely to have adult difficulties, including health problems, alcohol and drug dependence, financial problems and a criminal record, a new study suggests.
The research, published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tracked a socioeconomically diverse group of 1,037 children in New Zealand from birth to age 32. Kids were assessed on measures of self-control by parents, researchers and teachers every few years during childhood. They also did self-assessments.
Some 96% of the original participants were evaluated at age 32. Even after accounting for differences in social class, intelligence and home life, kids with lower self-control scores at age 3 were more likely to have adult health problems, such as sexually transmitted diseases, gum disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and excess weight, the study found. Among kids who scored in the highest 20% on self-control measures, 11% had multiple health problems in adulthood, compared with 27% of kids who scored in the lowest 20%. Kids with low self-control were more likely to later be dependent on drugs or alcohol, to have lower incomes, to be single parents and to have been convicted of a crime.
The researchers separately sampled fraternal twins in the U.K. and found that the sibling with lower self-control scores at age 5 was more likely to start smoking, to earn bad grades in school and to show antisocial behaviors at age 12, supporting the notion that self-control isn’t simply dependent on family situation.
Drs. Moffitt and Caspi [Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi, the Duke University psychologists who led the research] said that while children tend to improve their self-control skills as they get older, they’re also likely to keep their relative position. So if a child trails his peers in self-control, he’s likely to be behind his adult peers. Still, 7% of the children in the study “improved markedly,” they said, likely stemming from a variety of individual circumstances, such as a good school or changed family situation that improved structure in their lives.