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Ever look into your chubby, cherubic 3-year-old’s face and wonder what the future holds for her? New research suggests you can predict with startling accuracy whether she’s going to be a successful surgeon or an unwed, unemployed, chain-smoking teenage mother by how much self-control she has now.
The longitudinal study, conducted over three decades in New Zealand (by Duke University researchers), was published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers followed 1,000 children from birth to age 32, looking for correlations between self-control scores and future measurements of health, wealth and overall success. It turned out, the toddlers who were (either by nature or nurture) the most self-disciplined fared significantly better across the board as adults. Tots who scored lowest on the restraint scale took their impulsive, inattentive, aggressive ways straight into middle age.
Although the researchers admit they were surprised that early and consistent self-control was a greater predictor of success than intelligence, these results aren't necessarily shocking to me. Years ago I read about a similar, multi-decade study where kids were told they could have one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later. That was the whole study. And lo and behold, when the study participants had all grown up, guess which group not only excelled academically overall, but scored on average 210 points higher on their SATs than the other group? (Hint: It wasn’t the kids chanting "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, sucka!")
I agree that it’s a little daunting to consider the possibility that every persistent, demanding toddler on the planet is doomed, seeing as that pretty much describes every one I’ve ever met. But at the heart of this research, I think there’s actually great news. Sure, some kids are born with greater self-control than others, but restraint can easily be taught -- and encouraged. I’m not talking about Tiger Mom-style discipline here, but basic, common-sense parenting. No, you can’t have that toy today, but you can put it on your birthday list. Sure, we can go for a bike ride -- after you finish your homework. As Pink Floyd (mockingly) put it, how can you have your pudding if you don’t eat your meat?
What traits do you think can predict success in even the youngest kids? Chime in below!