Expert Commentary

Childhood self-control predicts health, wealth and public safety

2010 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on the relationship between childhood self-control and its consequences later in life.

As parents and policy-makers look for insights into how to best prepare children for the future, research is focusing on the long-term implications of early development and behavioral patterns. One key factor is children’s degree of self-control, which includes attributes such as the ability to delay gratification, conscientiousness and willpower.

In a 2010 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “A Gradient of Childhood Self-control Predicts Health, Wealth and Public Safety,” researchers from Duke University and King’s College London tracked more than 1,000 children from birth to the age of 32 to examine how the degree of childhood self-control shapes health, financial and other outcomes in adulthood. The researchers studied New Zealand children born in 1972 and 1973.

The study’s findings included:

  • For children whose degree of self-control was in the bottom fifth of the study, crime conviction rates in adulthood were 43%; for those in the top fifth of the study, the rate was 13%.
  • Even after accounting for differing social classes and initial IQs of children, the strongest predictor of adult financial stability was self-control as a child: 32% of those with low self-control were earning in the lowest fifth of income earners, whereas only 10% of children with high self-control were in the bottom fifth of earners.
  • By age 32, 10% of subjects who had poor self-control in childhood had developed substance abuse or dependency problems, versus only 3% of those with greater childhood self-control.
  • Only 11% of self-disciplined children had multiple health problems in adulthood, compared to 27% of their less-disciplined counterparts.

Tags: children, crime, drugs, cognition, poverty

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