Is intelligence the key to health, wealth and happiness for children? Or perhaps, as many believe, social class is the determining factor in potential success? According to new research published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, parents who stress over these variables are focusing on the wrong criteria. It appears instead that a concrete skill—one that can be taught—is actually much more influential than either intelligence or social status in securing positive outcomes. That skill is self-control.
In an international effort, a team that included researchers from Duke University followed 1,000 children in Dunedin, New Zealand from birth until they reached the age of 32, periodically measuring a variety of characteristics and looking for correlations to outcomes in such areas as health, wealth and criminal status. The connection between success and self-control was unequivocal.
Children who showed low levels of self-control in early childhood were more likely in their teen years to make mistakes with long-term consequences that trapped them into limiting or high-risk lifestyles. Such mistakes included becoming pregnant or dropping out of high school, which the researchers interpreted as a limiting factor for the next generation as well. However, even when children with low self-control avoided these crippling mistakes in adolescence, they still showed reduced outcomes in adulthood compared to children with higher levels of self-control.
While the strength of the new finding may come as a surprise to some, it does not come entirely from left field. For decades researchers have observed that nearly everything people do or become requires some form of self-control, or self-regulation. But if self-control is so important, how can parents help their children develop it, and when should they begin?
The seeds of this skill are planted during infancy when a child is utterly dependent on attachment figures. The attention of caregivers as they respond with empathy to an infant’s needs and emotions forms a resonant relationship that is the precursor of a child’s future ability to regulate his own thoughts, emotions and behaviors.
But the need for attunement between parents and children is not limited to infancy. Across the lifespan, the development of self-control is bolstered by attuned social connections. Likewise, the success of our social connections depends to a great degree on our ability to self-regulate. Clearly then, the task of connecting appropriately with our children is one of the greatest responsibilities of parenthood. Whatever other advantages we may or may not be able to provide for them, our hopes and dreams for their success are unlikely to be realized if we have not worked with them to develop a relationship conducive to the development of self-control.
For more on helping children develop self-regulation skills, see Teaching Children the Art of Self-Control.