Study name: "A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety," Moffitt et al., 2011, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, Volume 108, p. 2693 - 2698.
What was found? By tracking more than 1,000 kids from ages 3 to 32 and conducting detailed clinical and developmental assessments at many points during childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, this study discovered that self-control (the age-appropriate ability to regulate emotions, delay gratification, and control impulses) in toddlerhood and early childhood predicts a number outcomes by the time an adult is 32 years old. These outcomes include physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and criminal offenses.
Why is this study influential? The gradual development of self-control has been well recognized as a critical goal for toddlers and young children, but this study offers unparalleled insight into the cascading effects of self-control throughout an individual's life. Young kids with low self-control are more likely to make bad choices and experience problems as teens (smoking, leaving school early, and having unplanned pregnancies), and they eventually suffer more difficulties as adults (criminal convictions, financial problems, and health issues). It's important to note that this association was not related to having clinically defined ADHD (it was still relevant after kids with ADHD were removed from the analyses). This report also suggests the potential impact of improving self-control; kids who started off with low self-control but increased it over time showed parallel improvements in their developmental outcomes.
What's the take-home message? This study suggests that focusing efforts on properly socializing self-control in toddlerhood and early childhood can reap massive benefits for kids, families, and societies. This is different than finding temporary fixes for handling temper tantrums or overdiagnosing and medicating very young kids who need to learn behavioral and emotional management (a growing trend in the U.S.). Parents should seek out consistent rearing strategies that encourage blossoming independence but also set limits and provide strategies for kids to connect desires with social realities. Expect to see more long-term studies that identify the key parenting elements that will encourage self-control through toddlerhood, childhood, and adolescence.