Child’s Self-Control Plays a Role in Future Success

It turns out, everything you need to know to be successful in life you learn in preschool. I heard that on NPR the other day. Unfortunately, that ship has sailed for me. I flunked out of preschool. I couldn’t hack it. I cried all day until the teachers called my mom to pick me up.

But for the next generation, this is good news. Just about every kid today spends at least a little time in preschool before graduating on to kindergarten. And, it is at that tender age their future success can be determined according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study, conducted by a team of researchers who tracked a group of 1,000 people from birth until age 32, found a relationship between the level of self-discipline demonstrated at an early age and troubles later in life. In fact, preschoolers who struggled with self-control were more likely to have a criminal record, more likely to be poor or have financial problems and more likely to be single parents.

Self-control in a four-year-old, it would seem, could mean the difference between a lucrative career and a prison sentence. But don’t fret. Unlike the other two key factors – intelligence and family socioeconomic status – in predicting success, self-control can be taught, and early childhood educators have been zeroing in on self-control and incorporating methods for fostering it’s development among students in the classroom.

Some schools place a set of responsibilities on the young children. They may be expected to hang up their clothes or put away their lunch boxes or wash their hands before certain activities without being asked. I’m still working on all those skills with my kids, and they’ve been out of preschool for years. They may be the ones headed to prison, but hopefully the chores I started giving them a while back will help combat that outcome. See, I knew chores were good for them. Perhaps chores really are the number one predictor of adult happiness. Either way I needed the help, and apparently they needed the self-discipline.

Thankfully, self-control can be improved throughout life according to one of the researchers, Terrie Moffitt, professor of psychology at Duke University and King’s College London, but it gets more difficult. Best to start early.

(Photo: Flickr/Woodleywonderworks)

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  1. This makes me think of the marshmallow test whereby a group of kids was given a marshmallow and told they could eat it right away, or, wait for twenty minutes, then get three marshmallows. I may be making up the numbers. The group that opted to wait went on to score like double on the SATs later in life (OK, that number is definitely made up. But it was a significant difference). Anyway–I am of course now going through my son’s preschool and thinking, Good self-control, No self-control, Good…

    Great post–as always. Sorry you flunked out of pre-K, but the extra mommy time was probably worth more.

  2. I’m giving my kids marshmallows right now! Please, please please wait 20 minutes.
    How do you know all these crazy studies?

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