A toddler's inability to exert self-control appears to predict trouble later in life with substance abuse, crime and money mismanagement, researchers report.
The findings suggest early interventions to improve self-control could have lasting, cost-effective results, according to the report last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In a long-term study that enrolled 1,000 children in New Zealand more than 30 years ago, the researchers measured how the youngsters responded to circumstances requiring them to be patient or delay gratification. Parents, teachers and others around them also weighed in.
Another 1,000 children, all twins, were enrolled in England.
Over the decades, researchers chronicled the youngsters' actions. Those who had difficulty with self control starting as young as age 3 often grew into teenagers and adults who smoked, abused alcohol or other drugs, had unplanned and early pregnancies, broke the law and mismanaged their finances.
The link, while not new, adds strong evidence about the long-term consequences of a child's poor self-control.
"It's so rare to have data that can tell us about such a long period of time," said Mitch Prinstein, a University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill psychology professor who was not involved in the study. "It offers more direct evidence of what one might suspect."
Study author Terrie Moffitt, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at North Carolina's Duke University, said the research showed that even small interventions to boost a child's self-control could have large social benefit, improving health and wealth among all the children, not just those considered impulsive.
"This is a huge debate in policy circles -- the question of whether early intervention to enhance self-control should take a targeted approach vs. a universal approach," Moffitt said. "Universal interventions that benefit everyone avoid singling out and stigmatizing anyone."
Prinstein said parents should recognize the difference between normal childhood impetuousness and a problem that could lead to teen and adult difficulties.
"That threshold is when self-control issues are starting to interfere with being successful at school or interacting with peers," he said. "It's something that interferes with functioning in a dramatic way."
Moffitt said making inroads with self-control could have big payoffs -- personally and in society.
"We looked very closely at study members who were nonsmoking, nonparent, secondary school graduates, and there was variation among them in self-control and it still predicted how their adult life would unfold," she said. "This suggests that there might be a better return on investment from early childhood interventions."
(Contact Sarah Avery at sarah.avery(at)newsobserver.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)