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Commentary: Self-control in childhood, the best predictor of success in adulthood

Director of the famed Dunedin Multi-disciplinary Health and Development Study Professor Richie Poulton says there is one crucial skill parents and educators should aim to cultivate in kids.

Commentary: Self-control in childhood, the best predictor of success in adulthood

Professor Richie Poulton runs the ongoing Dunedin study. The study is in its fifth decade and has produced over 1,200 research publications and findings.

SINGAPORE: After examining the same cohort of 1,037 individuals for 45 years, tracking them from birth, throughout their adolescence and early adulthood, down to middle age, we have found one factor in particular that is incredibly predictive of success.

This is true whether success is defined as being in good physical, financial or emotional health.

Whether you avoid gambling problems, whether you’re a good parent, your chances of achieving a whole range of important life goals or tasks are much better if you had high levels of this trait – or skill – as a child, as young as age three.

It’s not intelligence, measured by IQ, or socio-economic status as a child, the usual suspects that people think matter for how well you do. We adjusted for these variables, and this one x-factor still predicted outcomes much better than we thought it would.

What is this x-factor? Self-control.


How much self-control you exhibit as a child – that is, the ability to control strong emotions, whether they be good or bad, and the will to persevere to attain a goal despite challenges, anticipates how much success you experience later in life.

It is a very important ingredient in life success. It’s not the sole ingredient – for there’s no such thing as a single or magic bullet. But if you have to pick one, this is a pretty good one to focus on. 

We’re all born with an innate disposition towards having some degree of self-control – some low, some medium, some high. 

If you were trying to spot self-control as a parent, what you should be looking for is your child’s ability to sit still on instruction, focus on tasks, follow instructions, to stick at things and persevere, inhibit impulses and not fly off the handle.

But the beauty of this trait or skill as I think of it, is that it can be taught like any other skillset.

Everyone, no matter where we start from, can practise and learn to be better at it. And the more you practise it, the more you have of it, the better your chances of ending up successful down the track.


However much attention an individual child requires may vary, but our years of research have revealed three dimensions of good parenting that parents need to focus on:

Being warm, sensitive and stimulating.

This is the magic trio.  A parent having one trait will do okay, but won’t really win any prizes in setting a child up for success. You need all three together.

Positive brain development also needs to be driven by warmth, predictability and love.

When children are born, they instinctively reach out to the world around them. When parents create an environment that the child trusts, by being warm in their interactions and sensitive to their child’s needs, the child learns to seek out novelty and responds to stimulation optimally because he or she feels safe. 

By the time that child gets to three, you can see differences in terms of how much emotional regulation and brain development a child can display.

Being warm and sensitive to their children's needs in this time would help them to make sense of their emotions and do better in future. (Photo: Nisha Karyn) A father with his children at a face painting station at the Dad's Day Out carnival on Jun 19, 2016. (Photo: Nisha Karyn)

The thing is, you can spoil children, you can set no limits, let them do what they want. But that’s not good for a child’s development.

Parents have a responsibility to set limits on what is acceptable and what is not, and teach their child what the rules are. Because a child will eventually have to leave his or her parents’ house, go out to the world and realise that the world won’t entertain their every whim and fancy. 

So warm, sensitive and stimulating parenting is not a contradiction to discipline, and should instead come in within these parameters.


If the pre-school is attuned to the importance of self-control, as an important skill to acquire, interactions there will be focused in a way that encourages this skill acquisition.

Yet, for a long time, people – politicians, policymakers, bureaucrats – have thought of pre-school as being more like a day care or a babysitting endeavour. Instead of presenting learning opportunities, pre-school has been viewed simply as a means of giving parents a break or allowing them to go to work.

For an extremely sophisticated period of development, you need equally sophisticated, well-trained teachers to maximise the experience for the children. This workforce would be well-versed in the types of interventions and exchanges that built critical skills, in the area of self-control for instance.

After all, children typically spend at least five or six hours a day, five days a week, in a pre-school setting, learning socialisation skills.

Strategies educators can practise include harnessing common games that children play and isolating the bits that emphasise self-control.

Most childhood games, if you think deeply enough, have some element of inhibition. You need to wait your turn. Stop. Wait for the cue to start again. If you emphasise these, but still keep the fun going, life skills become easily integrated into everyday pre-school activities.

Making these enjoyable for children also increase the odds they go home and persuade their parents to play these games with them. In this manner, larger life lessons can be scaffolded and built upon, in school and at home.

The role of pre-school educators in cultivating life skills from an early age should not be understated. (Photo: PCF Sparkletots)

Ultimately, spotting and cultivating self-control in kids is not rocket science. It’s kind of self-evident and logical.

None of us are born parenting experts. Practice is key for our children, and for us in improving our parenting, too.

Professor Richie Poulton is head of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health & Development Research Unit, which runs the ongoing Dunedin Study, a detailed study of human health, development and behaviour. He was in Singapore to deliver the CJ Koh Professorial lecture at the National Institute of Education.

Source: CNA/sl