It starts before they have even left the womb: the pressure for our children to succeed, to develop to their fullest potential. I berated myself during my first pregnancy because of how stressed I was — I’d read that stress can negatively impact your baby’s development. I panicked that my stress hormones would travel through the uterine wall and stunt my baby’s delicate, still-forming brain, inhibit his potential. Ironic what a huge stressor it was to worry so much about controlling my stress. Even now, I worry I gave my child ADHD because I was stressed during my pregnancy. (This is actually a thing.)
Once they’re born, the pressure to perform increases a hundredfold. We eagerly urge our babies to reach their milestones, proudly sharing videos on social media of “early” turning over, crawling, walking, talking. In some cities, the competition (and price) to get into preschool is intense. Where I live, we have a few high-performing elementary schools that parents clamor to get their kids into. We test our kids’ IQs, hoping to get them into “gifted programs” so they may be challenged academically. My son is in the seventh grade now, and the pressure really amped this year — from now on, every grade he makes “really counts.” It’s true though — the grades he earns now determine which high school courses he’ll take. His high school courses will determine his college readiness, his ability to get in, and his ability to earn scholarships.
If you want to be successful, we tell them, every grade counts. I have said some variation of this to my son. My son who has ADHD, who struggled all through elementary school, who made straight A’s for the first time just last semester. I admit that report card made me swell with hope. Maybe he’ll get a scholarship after all.
We put so much pressure on ourselves to ensure our kids have the best education and put forth their highest academic effort. We so desperately want them to be successful, and a rigorous academic curriculum is the way to get them there.
But is it? An ongoing study in Dunedin, New Zealand has been showing us that IQ may not be quite the heavyweight contributor we thought it was. And when we look at outcomes for valedictorians, the highest academic achievers in their graduating class, we’re seeing that they aren’t quite the roaring successes we might have predicted either. Successful, sure, but not nearly the world-changers we might have expected.
So what is the secret ingredient for success? Some have labeled it simply “emotional IQ,” but that’s too broad a term for what the Dunedin study has found when it examines the 1,000+ participants it has been studying now for nearly half a century.
What the researchers in the Dunedin study are finding is that there is one specific element of emotional IQ that is the greatest single predictor of future financial stability: self-control. Even when researchers control for IQ, gender, and wealth of the family they were born into, self-control continued to have “significant incremental validity in predicting the socioeconomic position [participants] achieved and the income they earned.”
By the age of 32, study participants who demonstrated poor self-control as children were less likely to have established “financial building blocks for the future” like owning a home, having an investment account, contributing to a retirement account. Children with lower self-control were more likely to struggle financially in adulthood, to have more health problems, and to have been convicted of a crime. Even when researchers removed the 61 study participants who had been diagnosed with ADHD, they still found the association between low self-control in childhood and less financial stability in adulthood to remain the same.
Why is self-control so important when it comes to wealth and health? Regulating emotions plays a huge roll in every aspect of our lives, so it stands to reason that being able to manage our reactions and react logically rather than emotionally would translate into better outcomes. But for children, it’s more than that. The Dunedin study found that adolescents with less self-control made the kinds of life-changing mistakes that could have a lasting impact on their lifestyles and thus their ability to maintain their health and achieve financial success. Still, even those with lower self-control who managed to make it through high school without any major setbacks experienced worsened health and less financial success in their thirties compared to their peers with more self-control.
And what about those kids who have ADHD, like mine? What about the kids who have always struggled with self-control? Is self-control an inalterable characteristic like the color of our child’s eyes or their height? Are our sweet, impulsive children doomed to a life of struggle?
Researchers say we absolutely can teach our kids self-control, and every bit of self-control they learn adds to their potential for future success. For my son with ADHD, we are already witnessing the effects of our ongoing interventions. Starting medication in third grade had a huge impact on his ability to control himself, and his father and I have always maintained strict but fair expectations with regards to his behavior and education. His teachers, especially the ones who “get” ADHD, have had a massive positive impact on his desire to learn and succeed. We’ve given him outlets to explore his wild, creative mind while enforcing consequences when he makes impulsive choices.
Here are a few other everyday ways parents can develop self-control in their kids:
1. Model it. We all lose our shit sometimes, but it’s important to model good self-control most of the time. Our kids learn from us just by watching what we do.
2. Provide “scaffolding.” Scaffolding is when you set up rules and routines that allow your child to navigate their activities and practice self-control with a support system in place. Maintain the “scaffolding” with consistent rules and expectations, and gradually loosen control (remove the scaffolding) as your child begins to demonstrate the ability to self-regulate their emotions and self-govern their actions.
3. Meditate with your child. Mindfulness and self-awareness are the building blocks of self-control.
4. Enforce table manners. This is a simple way to practice self-control on a daily basis.
5. Practice delayed gratification by saving up for big asks. Whether it’s a toy or an experience, don’t simply give it to your child. Make them work for it, save for it, and purchase it themselves.
6. Require that chores and homework be finished prior to fun activities.
As parents, it’s all too easy to get caught up in the current of focusing all our attention on intelligence and academic achievement — after all, these are tangible measures of our child’s abilities. But maybe we could all benefit from taking a step back and turning our focus inward, on ourselves, and teaching our kids to do the same.