If we could teach kids one thing

Is “self control” that thing?

The parenting advice pile in my blog reader is brimming over again. It’s a frustrating pile, which includes everything from marketing hucksters to well-intentioned ignorance and naive extension of reasonable ideas to unsupported generalizations. One recent article, however — which didn’t come through the parenting channels — offers a model of scientific method. It also reinforces some basic facts about inequality, and shows the limits of what we know.

Researchers Terrie Moffitt and colleagues, writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, traced a sample of children born in New Zealand in the early 1970s through age 32. Their study used a measure of “self control” from the first 10 years of life to see whether it was associated with health, wealth, and criminality by age 32.

By “self control” — the key concept in the study — they mean:

nine measures of childhood self-control [including] observational ratings of children’s lack of control, parent and teacher reports of impulsive aggression, and parent, teacher, and self reports of hyperactivity, lack of persistence, inattention, and impulsivity.

The study is observational, rather than experimental, in that they didn’t assign children to a self-control condition, but rather just observed how they turned out in relation to the self control they displayed. That means we can’t conclude the relationship is causal. There are lots of things about these kids and their lives that we don’t know, which could be hiding behind that self-control “effect.” (If we could get this idea alone to catch on with the parenting-advice-reading public, the social world would be a more relaxed place.)

Anyway, to me, three things stand out in their results:

  1. Self control does successfully predict health, wealth and criminality in the ways they expect. Kids with higher levels of self control do better on these measures later in life. And that holds with simple statistical controls for family socioeconomic status (low versus not low), and childhood IQ score (low versus not low).
  2. Family socioeconomic status (SES) is even more important. We already knew that, but it’s nice to be able to see that, even controlling for IQ and self control, SES is a key determinant of well being later in life.
  3. IQ scores in childhood are the least important, compared with SES and self control.

The authors are focused on self control, and their correlational evidence is quite strong, as seen in this key figure:

One more empirical point to reinforce: even though the science news was headlined “Don’t Take that Cookie!“, this article does not show that efforts to change children’s self control have beneficial effects. Although they do find that children whose self control improves over time are headed in a good direction, that improvement is not from the result of a measured intervention. So we really can’t say that working to improve self control makes a difference. Not that there’s anything wrong with it.

Finally, let me add one point on the philosophy of social science regarding studies like this. Neither this nor any other study of what makes children “turn out” a certain way speaks to absolute principles of well being — they are all socially situated in space and time. That is, there may be social contexts in which self control matters more, or less, than it did among New Zealanders born in 1972-73; the same holds for IQ scores and socioeconomic status.

As we should expect, today’s parents are concerned with what they can do to help their kids in the social here and now sweepstakes. But from a social point of view, we might just as concerned with how to reduce the well-being gaps between those with more versus less self control, IQ points and socioeconomic status as we are with how to get some kids more of these assets in order to help them get ahead. That’s our choice.

4 thoughts on “If we could teach kids one thing

  1. Each child a will that has never existed before, and yet we think a parenting formula will work to produce the fashionable attitude of the day ;). Truly a challenge to guide and protect without trying to force them into the cookie cutter.


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