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Lack of self-control in early childhood predicts adult problems

By John Published: January 26, 2011

At the risk of posting some "no duh" research, this long-term study of 1000  New Zealand children in a ScienceDaily article confirms what many a kindergarten teacher has suspected: the kid who can't control his impulse to stab his neighbor with the scissors probably will find himself in court early and often as an adult.

Two Duke University psychologists led the international team, which found that children as young as age three who scored low on tests measuring impulse control were more likely to have problems with health, finance, drug addiction and criminal behavior by age 32.  

The impulsivity and relative inability to think about the long-term of the lower self-control individuals gave them more difficulty with finances, like savings, home ownership and credit card debt. They also were more likely to be single parents, have a criminal conviction record, and be dependent on alcohol, tobacco, cannabis and harder drugs.

"These adult outcomes were predictable across the entire spectrum of self-control scores, from low to high," Moffitt said.

Yet study participants who somehow found a way to improve their self-control as they aged fared better in adulthood than their childhood scores would have predicted. Self-control is something that can be taught, the researchers say, and doing so could save taxpayers a pile of money on health care, criminal justice and substance abuse problems down the road.

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