Study: Restraint as a Youngster Connected to Success as an Adult

By Andrew Moseman | January 24, 2011 6:05 pm

Parents, of course, love to read too much into the small steps of a child’s development. But could it really be that the self-control kids learn to exert when they are very young is an indicator of the adult lives they will lead?

From DISCOVER blogger Ed Yong:

Right from the start, they are taught to restrain their impulses, focus on their goals, and control their choices. This seems like a wise move, but how could you tell if such instruction actually affects a child’s fate?

Ideally, you would follow a group of children into adulthood, to see how their degree of self-control affects the course of their lives. You’d need to catch up with them at regular intervals to look at their health, mental state, finances and more. You’d need to meticulously plan the study decades before the important results came in, and you’d need to keep in close touch with the volunteers so they stick with the study. In short, you’d need to have set up the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study.

That study began in the mid-1970s, and all these years later, nearly all of the thousand-plus participants (who were born in 1972 or 1973) are still involved. The huge data set Terrie Moffit and Avshalom Caspi have obtained shows that those who scored highest on self-control tests in the first years of their lives were healthier and wealthier than their peers into their 30s.

For all the details, check out the rest of Ed’s post at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Related Content:
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Bilingual Infants Have Better Mental Control
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Newborn Babies Have a Preference for the Way Living Things Move
DISCOVER: Could an Inner Zombie Be Controlling Your Brain?

Image: iStockphoto

  • Nibra

    Once again, another study of common sense. Give a child anything they want when they are young and they expect anything they want without sacrifice. Tell them that you can have this if you do this, or you can’t have this because you did this is building goals that they have to work towards while it costs them something. The fact that money and time was spent on this is a testament of how careless and wasteful all humans are. I would like to see people use alot more common sense and not have to perform silly little or long experiments. Why do you think they say it’s bad to spoil your child? Silly scientists.

  • James Greenidge

    One of the slings about the appearance of Sesume Street was that it’s bam-bam-bam high-powered fast visual format dazzled and sedated the imaginations and curiosity of the preschoolers who viewed it. When the average NYC high school grad on the street doesn’t even know where West Point is, it’d be worth a grad-school thesis to review this premise.

  • quarksparrow

    @Nibra: If there’s one thing that science has indeed taught us again and again, it is that common sense counts for nothing.

    The study wasn’t about parenting style. It was about the personality traits the subjects exhibited at a very young age, and how well those traits predicted their future success.

    Take nothing for granted when it comes to human behaviour. It is not, as you seem to think, self evident.

  • Nibra

    @quarksparrow : “… could it really be that the self-control kids learn to exert when they are very young… ”
    I’m wondering where you think kids “learn” to self control if not for thier parents and parenting skills.

  • Pippa

    Nibra – children do learn self control but their temperament is also a significant factor. I wish fewer people relied on what they consider to be ‘common sense’ – look at the problems it causes with our approach to sex education, sentencing and incarceration of juveniles and mental health care, to take just a few examples. Only when we are prepared to question our ‘sense’ based beliefs and act on research findings, then question them, will we make appropriate decisions that benefit the most individuals and society as a whole.

  • MT-LA

    Nibra, whether the children learned the self control from their parents is irrelevant:
    “To deal with that, the duo turned to a second group of children – 509 pairs of British twins ..”
    Twins with the same parents (and presumably, same parenting style) led different lives that correlated with different self-control “scores” when they were children. No cause and effect – just a correlation.
    The point: *If* you can get a child to exhibit more self control when young, then they will probably live a better life as an adult.

    And as for your common sense gripe, it wasn’t always common sense to wash your hands.

    Silly scientists!

  • Lynn

    Researched based information is valuable, but we must remember that studies are not always structured to include the many variables that may influence the subject. Where, for example, does a child get his values, his moral sense, a trust in his own intuition, confidence or lack thereof, and a sense of his gender role? All this comes from modeling– observing the adults in your primary family unit. Researchers can ask questions, observe and test. They cannot know what is and is not being absorbed by a child merely from living within his family, among others in a particular community, etc., so common sense is not nonsense. Young children learn the most by observing adult behavior.

    Teaching a child self control turns out to be an advantage because he learned from prior experiences that patience and observation usually yield positive results. Unlike others who rush into a situation impulsively, this child (as an adult) may have the edge simply because he is not afraid of losing out on an opportunity because he already know that assessing and planning often make attaining a goal easier. It would be no surprise if he displays self-confidence as a byproduct of having been taught self control in his youth.

  • Nibra

    It’s common sense to me.

  • Nibra

    It’s also common sense that if you look for something long enough you will find it. A scientist will adjust anything to get the outcome they think is right.
    Let’s just say you have the basics wrong, but you are lead to believe them through the system of “Civilazation” humans have built. Which leads everything that is built on this mistaken foundation to also be wrong.

  • Jim Bo

    Another way to look at it might be to check some of the old old sayings about these things.  An old saying is usually there because it was worth repeating.  I believe very strongly in science but I also believe we today are not so much smarter than our ancestors.  We have acquired lots of new information but to put it to good use is still quite difficult.


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