It is evident why the vast majority of parents invest huge amounts of time, energy and –increasingly – cash at securing a solid academic performance from our children. Although we can all cite at least one counter-example, the relationship between scholastic credentials and positive economic adulthood, on average, is fairly indisputable.
But is inherent ability, the right school, careful supervision, and parental push enough? Increasingly, researchers are concluding that it is not. In fact, the accumulating evidence suggests that independently of learning capability and other resource-based enablers, it is our children’s self-control, and in particular their ability to delay gratification or immediate satisfaction, that is key to avoiding trouble at school or with the law, and generating academic success.
While it may seem obvious that skipping the console or latest reality TV buzz in favour of homework is bound to underpin achievement throughout adolescence, the impact of self-control appears to extend over into adulthood. This manifests itself in the ability to develop and sustain enriching relationships, securing wealth, and making health-enhancing decisions such as avoiding smoking and drug or alcohol abuse. Studies which have asked teenagers whether they would prefer £100 now or £1000 in 10 years’ time have then followed them over their lifetimes and have almost invariably found that those less patient are more prone to low pay, unemployment, obesity, teenage parenthood, criminal convictions and even premature death.
But can self-control be improved by intervention or is it just fixed in all of us by nature? It’s still early days but there is some evidence that presenting the findings of such experiments as that outlined above as part of the school curriculum can encourage impatient youngsters to re-evaluate their choices and consider their long-term impact. Such interventions are cheaper and arguably more effective than state mopping-up of the fallout from low patience during adulthood. However, our Department of Education seems to favour preoccupying itself with how accurately each child is able to recite Wordsworth. There is an obvious question to pose to the bevy of prospective parliamentary candidates who will soon be clogging up our doorways and airways…