Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Want Your Child to Succeed? Focus on Self-Control

Another study was released this week showing the strong impact that learning self-control early in life can have on children’s long-term success. Numerous studies in recent years have shown the relationship between preschoolers’ self-control and later positive outcomes such as academic success and even job achievement as an adult. What is different about this new study is that it is one of the largest of its kind (consisting of over 1,000 participants) and followed participants from birth to age 32. In the world of social science, that is an impressive study.

The main finding of this new study is... that lack of self-control in preschoolers was related to a host of negative outcomes when these children became young adults such as financial problems, criminal offenses, and more health problems. Perhaps what is most interesting about these findings is that this relationship persists even after taking into account other important factors like socioeconomic status and IQ. That’s right, family social status and IQ of course play into long-term outcomes, but self-control plays an equal (if not more important) role. As the researchers point out, socioeconomic status and IQ are difficult factors to change in one’s life, but self-control is something that can be changed. Preschool, it seems, is the key time for kids to learn self-control.

For the sake of this study self-control was defined as traits such as conscientiousness, self-discipline, and understanding the consequences of one’s actions. These don’t sound like the easiest skills to teach a preschooler, right? They may not be the easiest to teach, but it is possible, and the payoff is worth the effort. Child development experts offer some of the following suggestions for helping preschoolers learn self-control:
  • Provide cues to signal times of transition, like from play time to lunch time. Preschool teachers often use things like ringing a bell or flashing the lights.
  • Establish a routine so kids know what comes next. This helps prevent emotional meltdowns.
  • Have consequences of negative behavior match the action. For example, if a child knocks down another’s stack of blocks, they are asked to help them re-stack them.
  • Ask children to wait (even if briefly) for a treat or special outing.
Although parents are the first and best teachers of these lessons in self-control, good preschool programs offer interactions and guidance to help young children learn these lessons as well. In fact, much research has shown that learning self-control (and similar skills) is one of the primary benefits of preschool, rather than “academic” learning.

So parents, take heart! With every explanation to “share your toys,” “wait for dessert” and “put away your toys” you are sowing the seeds of a life-long lesson in self-control.

Photo credit: Michale

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