Your Kid’s Willpower Can Make Or Break His Future

Willpower is one of the most important traits for success in life. As children, all of us have natural drives to control ourselves and our environments. But this drive isn’t equal in all. While some children are strong-willed, some others are not quite up there.

But how much does the willpower of our childhood decide what we shall become in our adulthood?

What Is Willpower?

We have many names for willpower: determination, single-mindedness, drive, resolve, self-discipline, and perhaps even grit. Psychologists explain willpower, or self-control, shortly and sweetly as the ability to resist short-term temptations to achieve long-term goals.

What does willpower do?

Roy Baumeister, a Francis Eppes Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, and author of the bestselling book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, lays down a few steps for us to achieve our goals:

  1. Having Desire/Motivation
  2. Setting Clear Goals
  3. Checking Progress
  4. Exercising Willpower

Willpower, the fourth step, is the decisive element of goal achievement. Without it, you can go through the routines like a programmed robot and still not reach your goals. (You may later catch these 3 Highly Effective Goal Setting Techniques to learn how to set clear and effective goals.)

Willpower can save us from indulging in unhealthy behaviors, as overeating, smoking, sexual promiscuity, and drunk driving. Sociologists Travis Hirschi and Michael Gottfredson in their General Theory of Crime suggest that low self-control (willpower for you and me) is the main cause of criminal behavior.


The Willpower Of A Thousand Kids

This is a remarkable study that came out a few years back from New Zealand. It gives us an insightful peek into how the willpower in children can foretell what their futures will be like.

The Children

In 2011, a group of psychologists led by Terrie Moffitt, Ph.D., took a look at the lives of 1,000 children from their birth through to their age 32. All of them were born in 1972–1973, in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Moffitt’s team wanted to find out how these kids scored on self-control in their childhood, and how it changed them over the years. This was a naturalistic study, which means they were not brought into the labs and given self-control tasks to do. Instead, they were observed how they fared and behaved in the real world.

They were out to find out how well these children’s self-control levels predicted their real-world lives once they become adults. They wanted to see if their early-life self-control predicted their later-life conditions. Called Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, it was to know how these children’s future health outcomes, wealth outcomes, and criminal convictions were shaped based on their childhood willpower levels.

The Study

The researchers gathered reports from the observers, teachers, parents, and the children themselves at ages 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11, and combined these into a single composite measure of self-control. Overall, the girls had higher levels of willpower. Also, children from well-off families had better self-control.

When the children reached 32 years of age, the researchers assessed their heart, lungs, teeth, and sex-related health. They underwent laboratory tests and doctor examinations for metabolic status (as thyroid hormones, blood sugars and lipids, weight and belly fat), breathing capacity, tooth decay, sexual diseases. Everyone had a check for their C-reactive protein level too, which gives an idea of the inflammation going on in the body.

They were also tested for depression, and substance abuse — tobacco, alcohol, cannabis (‘Mary Jane’), and other drugs.

The Results

In the final analysis, they found a few surprising (and a few not so surprising) things:

  1. Low self-control children were not more depressed than others
  2. Poor self-control kids had higher risks of alcohol dependence and drug problems
  3. As adults, children with low self-control were battling financial difficulties and credit problems
  4. Children with poor self-control had greater chances to have criminal convictions, even after accounting for social class origins and IQ

To make sure their findings were steadfast, they removed 61 kids from the study who had a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD — a childhood mental disorder of poor impulse control), and re-analyzed their data. The results were the same.

Altogether, the boys and girls with less self-control had worse health, less wealth, and more crime as adults than those with more self-control at every level.

The Future

Now, Moffitt’s team was on to a more important question: Would an increase in self-control predict better futures for these kids?

Though they did not include any training to increase their willpower, the researchers reached the answer to that question indirectly. They found that some children had bettered their self-control levels from childhood to young adulthood. And those children who became more self-controlled had better outcomes by the age of 32.

So, they concluded that even small improvements in self-control could bring about large improvements in health, wealth, and crime rate “for a whole nation.” If children with low self-control were trained to strengthen their willpower, they could fare better when facing temptations as starting smoking, trying illegal drugs, dropping school, or having unplanned babies.

The authors suggest that this willpower-strengthening intervention could come as a “one-two punch,” once in early childhood and again at the adolescent stage.


The authors write,

“That childhood self-control predicts adolescents’ mistakes implies that early childhood intervention could prevent them. Moreover, even among teenagers who managed to finish high school as nonsmokers and nonparents, the level of personal self-control they had achieved as children still explained variation in their health, finances, and crime when they reached their thirties. Early childhood intervention that enhances self-control is likely to bring a greater return on investment than harm reduction programs targeting adolescents alone.”

How To Build A Stronger Willpower In Children?

So, how do you build stronger willpower in your children?

  1. Give your kids practice to imagine situations beforehand, and tell them how to respond the right way
  2. Train them to distract themselves when in situations that are tempting, but they know as harmful
  3. Build into them a regular habit of meditation and mindfulness to strengthen their willpower
  4. Exercise with them so that they imbibe this healthy habit that can strengthen their grit
  5. Get them to learn this by heart: “When in doubt, I don’t do it. I wait until I’ve asked my mom or dad.”

Final Words

Kids with low willpower could have problems of many kinds in their adult lives, most noted in the financial, health, and criminal domains. But we can also change their future by changing their childhood.

Related Book

A child is presented with a marshmallow and given a choice: Eat this one now, or wait and enjoy two later. What will he do? And how would it reflect on his behavior in later life?

The world’s leading expert on self-control, Walter Mischel has proven that the ability to delay gratification is critical for a successful life, predicting higher SAT scores, better social and cognitive functioning, a healthier lifestyle, and a greater sense of self-worth.

In this book, he explores if willpower is pre-wired, or it can be taught?

Timothy Wilson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, and author of Redirect says about The Marshmallow Test:

“Walter Mischel has changed psychologists’ view of human potential, and The Marshmallow Test will change yours. The book is full of insights about self-control and how to master it, though it does create one impulse that is hard to resist the desire to read the book cover to cover. It is both a fascinating story of a brilliant researcher at work and a recipe for how to change one’s life.”

• • •

Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder and chief editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.

• Our story: Happiness Project

If you enjoyed this, please share it on Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn.


* Disclosure: Post includes affiliate links.