The child-rearing meme of self-esteem is being replaced by self-control. Well-intentioned efforts to promote children’s self-esteem in recent decades too often produced empty praise and, some argue, an epidemic of over-indulgence.
Among physicians and therapists who counsel parents on effective child-rearing, “These days, self-esteem is out, self-control is in. In terms of concepts, we don’t talk about self-esteem any more,” says Laura Kastner, Ph.D.
Self-control is “a very powerful concept right now and, of course, is an important part of executive functioning,” she said at the annual meeting of the North Pacific Pediatric Society. “It’s not that self-esteem is not important, it’s just very imprecise as a measure.”
Measuring children’s self-control (ability to delay gratification, control impulses, and modulate expression of emotion) not only is easier and more precise, but it is producing important findings in longitudinal studies, added Dr. Kastner of the University of Washington, Seattle. She’s also co-author of the book “Getting To Calm: Cool-Headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens and Teens” (Parent Map 2009).
Children with “undercontrolled temperament” at age 3 were more than twice as likely to show evidence of a gambling disorder as adults at ages 21 and 32 compared with those who were well-adjusted at age 3, according to an analysis of data from a large, 30-year prospective cohort study in New Zealand (Psychological Science 2012;23:510-516).
The degree of childhood self-control predicted the likelihood of physical health, substance dependence, sound personal finances, and criminal records, another analysis of the cohort found (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 2011;108:2693-2698).
Dr. Kastner said studies of this longitudinal data have shown that among the 20% of people with the lowest self-control as children, more than 40% had criminal records as adults, compared with criminal records for less than 15% of the 20% of people with the highest childhood self-control. Approximately 10% of the lowest self-control group was dependent on several drugs as adults, compared with less than 5% of the highest self-control group. Multiple health problems were reported by nearly 30% in the lowest self-control group compared with just over 10% of the highest self-control group. An annual income under $20,000 NZ (the equivalent of roughly $15,400 in U.S. dollars) was reported by more than 30% in the lowest self-control group and 10% of the highest self-control group.
The self-control meme is spreading rapidly, with books and articles exploring what it means and cultural differences in child-rearing. For one good example, see The New York Times article “Building Self-Control, the American Way.”
It remains to be seen whether interventions to help parents help their children to develop self-control will improve their lives later on.
–Sherry Boschert (on Twitter @sherryboschert)