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It's science: Teaching self-control is more important than academics

“Ava can write her own name."

I stood there annoyed and somewhat dumbstruck as my wife uttered these words to me. Ava is another three-year-old in my son's preschool class and my son, who also happens to have a three letter name, definitely cannot write his name.


As I stood there reflecting on this fact, a familiar feeling arose within me that went something like this: My son is falling behind the other kids, I'm not being a good enough parent, where else is he falling behind? and this is probably the first in a string of failed academic milestones for my son.

It sounds illogical writing them out, but I feel them nonetheless. The thing is, these feelings are not reserved for when super-kids like Ava outshine my children. I'm hit with them every time I'm faced with a skill milestone my kids haven't reached yet—my two-year-old not knowing her colors or not liking books, or the fact that my three-year-old doesn't know how to use scissors properly.

And I know you feel these things, too. I'm sure it's a different list of “behinds" for your child, but they're there nonetheless, and the pressure to make sure your child isn't behind the other kids weighs on you like a ton of bricks. We all want our kids to show up to kindergarten like an old, learned professor: “Ah yes, the alphabet."

It's completely understandable why we parents have this mindset. One quick look around the internet or at what other parents are “supposed" to do supports this paranoia. Heck, I just ran across a “71 things your child needs to know before kindergarten" post. Jeez Louise! Well, I have good news for you.

A 2011 study lead by Avshalom Caspi of Duke University found that self-control is a better predictor of future success than I.Q. (which is arguably linked to academic performance). Researchers followed 1,000 children and tested them every other year from the time they were three until age 11 on their ability to control themselves. They also tested their I.Q. among other factors.

When the children reached age 32, the researchers looked for correlations and found that self-control, not I.Q., was the best predictor of future success as measured by health, wealth and criminal offending.

The researchers found that “children with poor self-control were more likely to make mistakes in adolescence, resulting in 'snares' that trapped them in harmful lifestyles. More children with low self-control began smoking by the age of 15, left school early with no educational qualifications and became unplanned teenage parents."

The inverse of this, of course, is that if we teach our children how to control themselves, they're more likely to be successful in the long-term and not become trapped in these kinds of snares. The study even cites other studies stating that, while self-control is influenced by genes, it is also influenced by the environment (i.e. a parent's guidance).

So what does this all mean? Teaching your children how to control their impulses—how to refrain from hitting when they're upset or how to keep from grabbing a toy that they want—is actually a better investment of your time and energy than teaching them academics.

In my mind, this is fantastic news. All the blood, sweat, and tears that go into consistently disciplining our children will pay greater dividends than trying to keep up with the Joneses, academically speaking. Stay the course. It will pay off!

Ways to teach self-control

So how do we go about teaching our children self-control? First and foremost, by consistently enforcing consequences. This is one of the hardest parts of parenting. Which consequence should you use? When should you enforce a consequence?

By consistently enforcing healthy consequences, a child understands that not controlling their own behavior will lead to undesirable results. We're essentially teaching them now what they would otherwise have to learn later in life, but with much steeper consequences.

You should often remind your children of the rules and expectations you have of them. One study found that reminding a child of a rule resulted in the child showing more self-control than if the child was simply given time to think about the rule beforehand. Other ways to teach self-control include playing “Simon Says," “Red Light, Green Light," and other impulse-controlling games.

In summary, don't stress about making your child excel academically. Your time will be better spent teaching them self-control.

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