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Self-control in kids predicts future success, study says

January 25, 2011|By Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times
(Martin Schutt / AFP/Getty…)

Will your toddler grow up to be a healthy, financially stable, drug-free human being? It all depends on self-control, a new study says.

Signs of self-control in children as young as 3 could predict how successful that child would be as an adult, according to a paper published online Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The international team of researchers looked at 1,037 children in New Zealand born in the early 1970s, observing their levels of self-control at ages 3 and 5. At ages 5, 7, 9 and 11, the team used parent, teacher and the children's own feedback to measure such factors as impulsive aggression, hyperactivity, lack of persistence and inattention. At age 32, they used physical exams, blood tests, records searches and personal interviews of 96% of the original participants to determine how healthy, wealthy and law-abiding the subjects had turned out to be.

The results were startling. In the fifth of children with the least self-control, 27% had multiple health problems. Compare that with the fifth of kids with the most self-control -- at just 11%. Among the bottom fifth, 32% had an annual income below approximately $15,000, while only 10% of the top fifth fell into that low-income bracket. Just 26% of the top-fifth's offspring were raised in single-parent homes, compared with 58% of those in the bottom fifth. And 43% of the bottom fifth had been convicted of a crime, far outstripping the top fifth's 13% rate.

The researchers also found that for children whose self-control improved through childhood, the better these measures of quality of life -- from credit scores to metabolism -- became.

Thus, the authors concluded, it's never too early to start teaching kids a little self-discipline. "Early childhood intervention that enhances self-control is likely to bring a greater return on investment than harm reduction programs targeting adolescents alone," they wrote.

But how exactly do you get young children to focus more, apply themselves to tasks and show a little more willpower? Does it require rule-setting strictures as encouraged by Amy Chua, she of "Tiger Mother" fame? Post your thoughts below.

Follow me on Twitter @LAT_aminakhan.

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