Is intelligence the key to health, wealth and happiness for children? Or perhaps, as many believe, social class is the determining factor in potential success? According to new research published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, parents who stress over these variables are focusing on the wrong criteria. It appears instead that a concrete skill—one that can be taught—is actually much more influential than either intelligence or social status in securing positive outcomes. That skill is self-control.
In an international effort, a team that included researchers from Duke University followed 1,000 children in Dunedin, New Zealand from birth until they reached the age of 32, periodically measuring a variety of characteristics and looking for correlations to outcomes in such areas as health, wealth and criminal status. The connection between success and self-control was unequivocal.
Children who showed low levels of self-control in early childhood were more likely in their teen years to make mistakes with long-term consequences that trapped them into limiting or high-risk lifestyles. Such mistakes included becoming pregnant or dropping out of high school, which the researchers interpreted as a limiting factor for the next generation as well. However, even when children with low self-control avoided these crippling mistakes in adolescence, they still showed reduced outcomes in adulthood compared to children with higher levels of self-control.
While the strength of the new finding may come as a surprise to some, it does not come entirely from left field. For decades researchers have observed that nearly everything people do or become requires some form of self-control, or self-regulation. But if self-control is so important, how can parents help their children develop it, and when should they begin?
The seeds of this skill are planted during infancy when a child is utterly dependent on attachment figures. The attention of caregivers as they respond with empathy to an infant’s needs and emotions forms a resonant relationship that is the precursor of a child’s future ability to regulate his own thoughts, emotions and behaviors.
But the need for attunement between parents and children is not limited to infancy. Across the lifespan, the development of self-control is bolstered by attuned social connections. Likewise, the success of our social connections depends to a great degree on our ability to self-regulate. Clearly then, the task of connecting appropriately with our children is one of the greatest responsibilities of parenthood. Whatever other advantages we may or may not be able to provide for them, our hopes and dreams for their success are unlikely to be realized if we have not worked with them to develop a relationship conducive to the development of self-control.
For more on helping children develop self-regulation skills, see Teaching Children the Art of Self-Control.
The holidays—that time of year when family gatherings are at their peak in many cultures—have come and gone. Most of us have returned to our normal routines; the anticipated reunions that held so much promise earlier in the year are now only memories. Unfortunately, some of these memories may not be all that we could have hoped. Longstanding serious family issues such as discord between parents, sibling bullying or other dysfunctional family relationships may have marred these gatherings for some or all members of the family.
But even generally "functional" families often experience changes that may lead to hurt feelings after the holidays. For instance, college students may make their own plans for the first time, or newly married adult children may suddenly find they need to juggle two or more sets of in-laws.
"When children do not come home for a holiday it is often very painful for parents," says Ruth Nemzoff, a resident scholar at Brandeis University and expert in family dynamics. "The first time is often the worst. Parents are sometimes hurt and this hurt might manifest itself in anger." The reason for your offspring's absence matters little, she points out. "The table feels like it has a giant hole in it."
The best way to avoid hurt feelings, of course, is to anticipate them and prepare for them amiably. "Rather than getting angry, it might help to let your child know how disappointed you are, how much you love them and how much you look forward to celebrating at another time or another holiday," Nemzoff says.
If the damage has already been done, now is the time to repair it, before hurt feelings have been allowed to persist long past the holidays. Apologize for any overreactions on your part and assume only the best motives on the part of others. The fact is that keeping family relationships healthy throughout the year is far more important than whether or not holiday events and obligations were negotiated to everyone's personal satisfaction.
"The ever-changing dynamics of your family circumstances are beyond your control," Nemzoff acknowledges. "You do, however, have control over how you react to these changes."
Dr. Ruth Nemzoff is a public lecturer and the author of Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children.