Will your children dive into their chocolate Easter eggs this Sunday and scoff the lot before bedtime?
Or will they – on your insistence perhaps – space out their consumption over days or even weeks?
There are pros and cons to both approaches. Some parents believe it is better to let children, not to mention themselves, indulge as much as they like for one day only. They’ll brace themselves for the consequences of a gigantic sugar high with the comfort of knowing it will all be over within 24 hours and then the whole family can return to routine healthy eating.
Other parents prefer the chocolate to be rationed into smaller but many more “helpings” over a longer period, while hoping that each little sugar spike won’t spark a craving. Equally, some children take pleasure in stashing chocolate away for future enjoyment, particularly if it might give them power over a sibling who has already devoured theirs.
Aside from dietary considerations, what children do with their Easter eggs could be a predictor of the size of their pension pot in 60-plus years’ time. As outlandish as that might sound, it’s a conclusion that can be drawn from a seminar on the life-long effects of childhood self-control at the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) in Dublin on April 11th last.
Dr Michael Daly, senior lecturer at Maynooth University Psychology Department, presented some of the latest findings on the long-term benefits of being able to delay gratification and control impulses as a child. He has been leading research into specific outcomes relating to health, wealth and happiness over a lifetime, which increasingly appear to be linked to early self-control.
As a parent, here are answers to the questions you might have:
What's the definition of self-control?
"It is the general ability to regulate your thoughts, feelings and behaviour to try and achieve your goals," is how Daly puts it in an interview with Health + Family. "Self-regulation" or "self-discipline", are other terms used, the former being much in vogue in early childhood education.
It is discussed in different ways in various disciplines. For instance, he says, in economics they talk about patience and the ability to wait for rewards, in other words, delayed gratification, which would overlap with how it’s seen in psychology. “In psychiatry, they talk more about inattention and hyperactivity, kids not being able to stay seated and focus their attention. The extreme end would be ADHD.” But all these concepts fall under the umbrella term of “self-control”.
Does personality come into it?
Like most individual traits, it is partially heritable, says Daly. It is estimated to be about 60 per cent heritable, while the rest is attributable to environmental influences.
“It develops across childhood. As we get socialised in school, having to work towards tasks and our parents giving us responsibilities and demonstrating what we should be doing, we internalise those standards and that forms what we call conscientiousness – being a more diligent, achievement-striving and dutiful person.”
There are lots of other personality traits that are considered important, such as how extrovert somebody is or their leadership abilities but, compared with self-control, none has been shown to be as strong a predictor of how people fare later in life.
How is it measured in children?
Sociological studies establish levels of self-control from what teachers, parents and sometimes children themselves say about their behaviour. Things taken into consideration include attention span, frustration levels, impulsivity, persistence, restlessness and ability to wait and to take turns.
Wasn't the "marshmallow test" something to do with this?
That famous social-science experiment was devised by Stanford University psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1960s to test children's ability to delay gratification. Each child was left alone with a marshmallow, having been promised that if they waited 15 minutes without eating it, they would be given a second one.
The results were tracked into the 1990s, and were found seemingly to back up the idea that children who demonstrated better willpower at an early age would reap the benefits in later life, such as better exam results and more successful careers.
However, a New York University replication of the study, with a much bigger and more diverse cohort of children than the original small group of pre-schoolers on the Stanford campus, concluded last year that the ability to delay gratification in this narrow example could be more probably explained by socio-economic background. Poorer kids who have experienced food scarcity might be less motivated to wait for a second marshmallow to appear, in case it didn't.
What is new about the findings presented at the ESRI seminar?
The research led by Daly has tracked childhood self-control ratings across two large longitudinal studies in the UK, one starting from birth in 1958, the other from birth in 1970. Findings show that high levels seem to protect against unemployment, smoking, obesity and early death and are also a predictor of success in terms of social mobility, higher income levels, savings and home ownership.
There are very good controls in the data for intelligence and social background – two other strong predictors of how we do in education, work and health – which allow the effects of self-control to be pinpointed, even going down to bio-markers for things such as blood pressure and cholesterol.
Comparing siblings is also very powerful, Daly explains, as they are coming from the same kind of family and household. Results show their individual level of self-control is potentially one of the main drivers of different outcomes when they’re older.
When it comes to the likelihood of unemployment, self-control levels appear to be a stronger predictor than a child's IQ
In the area of health, the effect is comparable to that of social disadvantage. When it comes to the likelihood of unemployment, self-control levels appear to be a stronger predictor than a child’s IQ.
The latter finding emerged from times when the economy was doing badly, says Daly, who suggests it may be because if employers are having to pick workers to let go, they will target employees who have characteristics such as bad timekeeping, frequent disagreements with customers, or being less likely to complete projects.
Is it an innate ability or can you learn it?
"There are ways to foster self-control," says Daly. "If it is as malleable as we think it is, then there are potentially good opportunities there. That is why people are so focused on it now – particularly educators, who have developed curricula to try and promote it.
Why is it seen as so important right now?
The tension between having every conceivable consumer good at your fingertips and the need both to save money for the long term and safeguard your health is more prevalent now. With longer life-expectancy, says Daly, "more than ever you need to save for your pension; you need to try to manage your health and avoid disability when getting older. It is kind of crucial at the moment."
Yet in our always-on world we are confronted with high-calorie food at every turn and also social media “which, if nothing else, can at least take up a lot of time you might want to spend on other uses”, he says. Both can mitigate against healthy eating and sufficient exercise.
Within the workforce, so many people have third-level education now, employers are looking for signs of conscientiousness and perseverance to give one applicant the nod over another.
Although Daly has not yet examined any possible link between childhood self-control and divorce, there is evidence from a Dunedin longitudinal study in New Zealand that those with higher levels are better able to sustain relationships and to parent their own children.
It was research, published in 2011, on the lifelong impact of early self-control using data from the Dunedin study that helped spark Daly’s interest in the area. Tracking 1,000 children over 40 years, the authors concluded that “childhood self-control strongly predicts adult success, in people of high or low intelligence, in rich or poor”.
The UK cohorts Daly has used in his research are much larger, more than 17,000 in both cases, and nationally representative. While working at the University of Stirling, they got questions added from age five in the Growing Up in Scotland longitudinal study to enable a similar tracking there in the future.
Having come to work in Maynooth just last year, Daly has identified measures in Growing Up in Ireland that are related to self-control and could be used to track links to life outcomes.
“This would be fascinating and informative to do as the study continues over the coming years,” he says.
What is the implication of the mounting evidence on self-control for social policy?
It bolsters the argument for interventions to boost this trait in children, particularly to over-ride socio-economic disadvantage. While pre-school education is acknowledged as a vital time for such programmes, there are also elements that could be tailored to prevent youngsters falling into "key adolescent snares", says Daly. The three main ones are smoking, teenage pregnancy and school dropout – all of which are associated with lower levels of self-control and have potentially life-long detrimental effects.
Can you have too much self-control for your own good?
Some studies have looked at this and there is actually very little evidence of diminishing returns. Rather, it seems that the higher the level of self-control, the happier the person is in the long-term. While perfectionism can undoubtedly be an issue for mental health, that's not the same thing.
Self-control helps you achieve your goals; perfectionist maybe is more about having unrealistic goals
“Self-control helps you achieve your goals; perfectionist maybe is more about having unrealistic goals and not being able to disengage from them and not succeeding,” suggests Daly.
Their findings so far that those with high levels of self-control turn out to be the happiest reinforce the idea that fostering it is “more about empowering children, than saying they have to adhere to all the rules you put in front of them”, says Daly.
The Dunedin study found that even in artistic pursuits, children with higher self-control are more likely to succeed. For example, their paintings are more likely to be exhibited, or their books more likely to be published. This suggests they can capitalise on their abilities better, bringing their work to fruition.
So, is my chocolate-scoffing child doomed to penury in old age?
"Just because a child has low self-control at age four or five doesn't mean that they will [still] have it at age 10 or 11," says Daly.
There is what is called “rank order change”, where the pupil who is most out of control in junior infants is not always the same one by the time that group reaches sixth class.
There is opportunity for changes, Daly stresses. So, no, it doesn’t necessarily mean your child indulging to excess this Easter will end up with no pension!
What will improve a child’s self-control?
Studies show how various approaches, be they in pre-schools, schools, homes or the community, are effective to varying degrees.
What researchers need to do is to narrow down through evaluations the best of the interventions, says Dr Michael Daly of Maynooth University, and also look at how they can be “upscaled” with the same effects.
A review of more than 50 randomised trials of self-regulation interventions, the results of which were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last year, showed that consistent improvement was reported in 76 per cent of curriculum-based interventions, in half of the mindfulness and yoga interventions, in 56 per cent of family-based programmes and in 67 per cent of those involving exercise.
In Ireland, where more than a quarter of children struggle with managing their emotions and behaviours, Orla Doyle and Ailbhe Booth from the UCD Geary Institute evaluated one intervention that can help. "Preparing for Life" (PFL) is a community-led initiative in north Dublin, among children of pre-school age.
“PFL has great potential to improve children’s self-control as it coaches parents on dealing with difficult behaviour and how to support their child’s emotional development,” says Doyle. It encourages parents to make changes in their home, such as reinforcing the importance of routine, using stimulating toys, and engaging in age-appropriate games and activities that help children to regulate themselves.
“The evaluation of PFL found the programme reduced children’s problem behaviours and improved their pro-social behaviours,” Doyle adds. “The children’s teachers also reported less hyperactivity and inattentive behaviours, and improved social competencies and levels of autonomy.”
Daly’s advice to parents includes to demonstrate planning and self-control yourself. Simple things like using calendars; writing (and sticking) to shopping lists and involving children in this where practical.
He also suggests giving your off-spring an active role, when possible, in planning a day’s activities. “It’s easy to drag kids around and not let them take any intentional or purposeful control over what they do one day to the next.”
Children should be encouraged to “self-talk” through challenging situations, eg: “I feel angry that you’ve taken my toy but I am going to be kind and let you play with it rather than grab it back.”
Finally, make-believe play is one of the most powerful ways of children learning to self-regulate as they explore ideas of being different people in different scenarios.