Children, Society Pay Self-Control Deficit

I have spent almost 40 years in courtrooms hearing the life stories of men and women convicted of crimes. I also listen to expert psychological testimony about the developmental causes of their behavior. Decades of experience have shown me that the decisions our children will make as teens and adults, and how successfully they cope with life’s challenges, depend largely upon what happens in their first three years.

For example, social and emotional adjustment throughout life is strongly influenced by development in these first years. One of the most important social skills a child begins to learn prior to age 3 is self-control. Also called “self-regulation,” this is a learned behavior that gradually enables a child to regulate his or her emotions and behavior when needed.

Self Control Impacts Every Area of Life

Early self-control skills have lifelong effects. In infancy, babies are already acquiring skills related to later self-control. Emotional regulation, for instance, is a key milestone in early social and emotional development. When self-regulation is not adequately developed, future problems in behavior are almost a given. Research shows that poor self-regulation is associated with childhood disruptive behavior, academic failure and difficulty with peers. It also interferes with school readiness by impairing a child’s mastery of simple classroom skills such as following direction and paying attention. Without these skills, how can any child be successful in life?

As children with self-control problems grow into adolescents and young adults, they begin to see success pass them by, and tend to reject society’s definitions of success. They are more likely to start smoking, to drop out of school and to become teen parents. They are also at a much higher risk for anti-social behavior and delinquency.

By contrast, children who score higher in self-control have better adolescent and adult outcomes. They have less chance of committing a violent crime and are less likely to use public assistance. They are more likely to obtain a college degree and they earn higher salaries.

Parents Affect the Development of Self Control

What determines which path a child will follow? Research supports the proverb “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” Parenting plays a key role in the development of self-control. In early infancy, a baby learns emotional regulation with the help of signals given by parents and caregivers. Comforting a crying baby teaches him that he is loved and cared for, and helps him learn to regulate his emotional responses. Being indifferent to his cries, or responding angrily, will usually have the opposite effect.

Study after study shows that responsive, emotionally supportive parenting during the early years promotes later self-control. Negative, harsh parenting can hinder the development of early skills related to self-control.

The Lack of Self Control is Costly to Our Community

The cost to children who fail to learn self-control is profound. In the latest annual report from the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County, only 7 percent of the 15,320 children handled that year lived in a home with both parents. Unfortunately, in Criminal Court I handle hundreds of cases each year involving young men and women charged with violent crimes. It has been many years since I have seen a defendant in court supported by a loving mother and father.

In addition to the human cost, there are also enormous societal and financial costs. There is no question that early intervention is the key. Children who learn self-regulation skills become adults who have fewer depressive symptoms, better decision-making skills and greater social perspective and empathy. By contrast, early childhood deficits in self-control persist throughout adulthood, launching children on an anti-social and often criminal trajectory.

Reaching these unfortunate children during their first years, when early regulation skills are being learned, is the best way to improve their chances for happiness. Intervention during the first three years brings a much greater return than programs aimed at older children who have already fallen behind in self-control and other social and emotional skills.

Children do not choose their parents and are not responsible for developmental problems rooted in early infancy. They were dealt that hand at birth. We have a societal duty to get involved. Our community must find a way to intervene in their lives early on, because too many of them have no one else. That well-known proverb might just as well be read to say “Fail to train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will have no hope.”

Chris Craft has served as judge of Division 8 of the Shelby County Criminal Court since 1994. This is one in a series of monthly guest columns on the importance of public/private investment in early childhood.

This article was originally published by The Commercial Appeal.