Teaching self control better than imposing restrictions


Principals want restrictions on junk food sold near schools.

This is would be a desperate step which wouldn’t work.

Removing some temptation teaches the children nothing, what they need is to learn how to resist it.

That is backed up by a University of Otago study that shows self-controlled children become healthier, wealthier adults.

Young children’s self-control skills – such as conscientiousness, self-discipline and perseverance – predict their health, wealth and criminal history in later life regardless of social background or IQ, the Multidisciplinary Study shows.

The study led by Professors Avshalom Caspi, Terrie Moffitt and Richie Poulton is published in the US-based journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, and offers evidence that even small improvements in self-control for children can yield reductions in costs of healthcare, welfare dependency and crime to a nation.

Professor Moffitt says the research indicates that low self-control makes children vulnerable to ‘snares’ that could have life-long impacts.

Poor diet and lack of exercise aren’t going to be solved by imposing restrictions on dairies and fast-food outlets when most of the responsibility for what children eat and do lies at home.

What do they eat for breakfast, what are they given to eat at school, what do they have when they get home , how active are they and where do they get the money to spend on junk food?

Children who have a reasonable diet and enough exercise most of the time won’t get fat on the occasional treat.

Learning to eat properly and make healthy choices is one aspect of self control and the study shows that has many benefits:

The results suggest all children – even those who already have above average self-control – could reap later rewards from universal interventions design to improve such skills.

“This is a highly uplifting message,” Ms Moffitt says. “Not only could the most vulnerable children have a better chance at a happy and healthy life; there is the potential for across-the-board benefits in personal, social and economic well-being.”

Ms Moffitt says the challenge now is to develop interventions specifically focuses on improving self-control skills that can be offered on a universal basis to young people.

I have sympathy for principals who have to deal with the behavioural and health problems in pupils who don’t eat balanced diets.

But this study shows the solution is in teaching self-control to individuals rather than imposing restrictions on businesses and their customers. 

A large part of the solution to the problem of childhood obesity isn’t restrictions on what’s sold but self-restraint over what’s eaten.


Jim Mora interviewed Professor Richie Poulton on the self-control study and he was also interviewed on Close Up.

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