Learning self-control as a preschooler has lifelong consequences

Dularge Middle sets bar for educating the poor
February 22, 2011
Thursday, Feb. 24
February 24, 2011

Mardi Gras is now in full swing. This means that Lent is not too far behind. Lent is a special time of reflection, prayer, alms giving and thoughtful self-denial so we can get in touch inner selves and be open to God’s goodness and grace. During Lent, we can identify with Jesus’ admonition to “repent and believe in the Good News.”

A new scientific study by Terrie Moffitt, a professor of psychology at Duke University and King’s College London, has given us new insight into the importance of self-discipline. Moffitt and a team of researchers studied a group of 1,000 people born in New Zealand in 1972 and 1973, tracking them from birth to age 32. The researchers defined self-control as having skills like long-term vision, self-discipline and perseverance, plus being able to consider the consequences of decisions.

The children that struggled with self-control as preschoolers were three times as likely to have problems as young adults. They were more prone to have a criminal record; more likely to be poor or have financial problems; and they were more likely to become single parents. The study showed that displaying self-control makes the difference between getting a good job or going to jail.

Three factors are most important to a person’s success in life: intelligence, family’s socioeconomic status and self-control. Moffitt’s study found that self-control predicted adult success, even after accounting for the participants’ differences in social status and IQ. “Children who had the greatest self-control in primary school and preschool ages were most likely to have fewer health problems when they reached their 30s,” said Moffitt.

She also pointed to the evidence that we can learn self-control. “Identical twins are not identical on self-control. That tells us that it is something they have learned, not something they have inherited.”

Parents can help their children learn self-control. Mary Alvord, a clinical psychologist in Silver Spring, Md., and author of “Resilience Builder Program for Children and Adolescents,” teaches self-control strategies. “Take small steps,” she says. “For example, preschoolers can learn that they do not always get what they want immediately; they may need to wait for that treat. I call it Grandma’s rule. No dessert until you finish your dinner.”

Parents can also help teenagers learn self-control by making sure the family has clear rules for things like curfew or finishing homework before they watch television or play on the computer. Teenagers who have problems with impulsive behavior may benefit from special classes that help them control their emotions. For all teens, clear rules such as curfews help them regulate themselves.

Though self-control can be improved throughout life, Moffitt says the earlier children can learn these skills of self-discipline and perseverance, the better. “The later you wait in life to try to learn self-control skills, the more problems you have to reverse and overcome.”

The Greek philosopher Epictetus reminds us, “Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within your control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced this fundamental role and learned to distinguish between what you can and cannot control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.”

Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24)

Lent is a great time to look at our lives and let go of our tendencies for self-gratification, our ambitions to acquire more things, and our desire always to be in control. We need to let go and give our lives over to our loving God.