How Important is Self-Control?

How Important is Self-Control?

By Jim Windell

             One of the essential parenting tasks is to teach children to control their emotions. Along with this is helping children develop social skills. When children become socially competent, they have a certain amount of good judgment in interpersonal relationships, they have emotional control, and they have a growing sense of what is appropriate behavior.

            You can say that a child who has developed positive social skills has emotional intelligence. But what this means is that kids with emotional intelligence can interact successfully with others, manage their anger, control their impulsivity and deal with authority. Lacking such skills often condemns young people to interpersonal problems that can affect many areas of their life. But do such problems continue into adulthood?

            That was a question asked in a recent study which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

           And the answer is yes.

           This study, led by Leah Richmond-Rakerd, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, tracked just over 1,000 New Zealanders from birth to the age of 45. Richmond-Rakerd’s team gauged self-control between the ages of 3 and 11 by enlisting teachers, parents and the enrolled children to assess each kids' impulsivity, frustration tolerance and ability to persist in achieving goals. Then, a combination of physical exams, interviews and brain scans were carried out at age 45 to determine physical health and social well-being as an adult.

           The investigators found that those who had greater self-control when young had fewer indications of brain aging by middle-age, were better informed about both health and finances, and had developed better social skills. In effect, investigators found that kids who were goal-oriented and better able to restrain their thoughts, behavior and emotions turned out to have healthier bodies and brains by the time they hit middle age.

           Importantly, the team found that the findings held up even after accounting for both family income and IQ scores.

           "We found that as adults, at age 45, children with better self-control aged more slowly," said Leah Richmond-Rakerd. "Their bodies and brains were healthier and biologically younger. We also found that they had developed more health, financial and social reserves for old age."

           Why? Richmond-Rakerd said her team thinks it has to do with having better emotional regulation to deal with life. People who had emotional control as youngsters could plan better so that they experienced fewer crises and challenges. “And their response to challenges is more measured and thoughtful when crises do arise," says Richmond-Rakerd.

           Richmond-Rakerd acknowledges that "some children develop self-control more easily than others," but she stressed that the study also found that "some people shifted in their level of self-control over time, suggesting that self-control might be malleable, and subject to intervention."

             "We think this has important implications," she said. "Even if we didn't exercise good self-control in early life, there may still be opportunities to prepare ourselves for aging when we are in our 40s and 50s. It's not too late."

            To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Leah S. Richmond-Rakerd, PhD, assistant professor of psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; James E. Maddux, PhD, university professor emeritus of clinical psychology, and senior scholar, Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, George Mason University, Fairfax, Va.; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Jan. 4, 2021, online


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