FSU study: Parents may have longer to influence kids’ self-control

Parents, take note: longstanding theory contends that low self-control is more strongly correlated with crime than any other known factor, and also claims that self-control patterns stabilize and become fixed in children by age 10, persisting thereafter.

Now, a Florida State University study offers strong empirical evidence that supports—and challenges—the "stability thesis," an idea that suggests parents have just 10 years or less to affect lasting patterns of self-control (e.g., the ability to delay gratification and thoughtfully consider the consequences of actions) in their child. Although it’s one of the central arguments in a decades-old and widely supported theory linking low self-control to crime, the stability thesis itself had gotten relatively little scrutiny from criminologists until FSU researchers took a long look.

"Based on data compiled over a period of eight years from a national sampling of nearly 4,000 U.S. children ages 7 to 15, our conclusion about self-control is clear," said FSU criminologist Carter Hay. "While the first decade of life is critical to its development, we now know that the period of adolescence remains important as well."

The findings are described in the November issue of the journal Criminology. Led by Hay, an assistant professor in the FSU College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, and co-authored by FSU criminology doctoral student Walter Forrest, the study offers parents a sort of general time table, a measure of hope and a warning about complacency.

It found that all self-control patterns stabilized by age 10—frequently as early as age 7 and sometimes even before that—in more than 80 percent of the children tracked. In other words, if self-control was low—or high—early on, it usually stayed that way.

But: In about one in six children, measurable changes in self-control occurred between the ages of 11 and 15, and where they did, positive or negative changes in the quality of parenting during the transition to adolescence were key. Parents who improved or declined in their consistency of supervising behavior, recognizing and correcting wrongdoing, and showing emotional warmth during those years made a difference in their child—for better or for worse.

Results from the research emphasize that changes during adolescence can harm as well as help. Negative factors such as parental depression, substance abuse or divorce that begin or worsen between ages 11 and 15 can disrupt positive self-control patterns or exacerbate already low ones.

Given self-control’s primary role in criminal behavior, the fact that such behavior often begins during adolescence, and crime’s concentration in a small portion of the population, even relatively small deviations in self-control development after age 10 can significantly affect the overall crime rate, according to Hay and Forrest.

The FSU researchers analyzed data that tracked 3,793 U.S. children for eight years from roughly ages 7 to 15. They focused on the trajectory of self-control development between childhood and adolescence—when a proclivity for crime may first emerge.

Research data were derived from behavioral measures in surveys completed by the mothers of children studied. The specific methodology took care to focus on questions about generic actions for which opportunities are ubiquitous for all children—such as "acts without thinking," "cannot pay attention" or "argues too much"—rather than behaviors that are highly dependent on opportunities such as driving while intoxicated or incurring debt).

"Frankly, we were surprised at just how much stability we found in all patterns of self-control for 84 percent of our sample," Hay said.

"However, despite that substantial stability, we also discovered that self-control patterns in 16 percent of the sample improved or declined between ages 11 and 15, both in absolute terms and relative to peers," he said. "Changes in those children corresponded to changes in parental socialization (parenting) during their transition to adolescence."

In fact, he suggests, self-control patterns could continue to evolve well beyond age 15 in response to many factors, including changes in parenting style; the latest FSU research simply limited its sample to children no older than that.

What’s more, Hay declares that findings described in "The Development of Self-Control: Examining Self-Control Theory’s Stability Thesis" may alter criminological theory by showing that self-control in children develops in more varied ways than long thought.

To learn more about the FSU College of Criminology and Criminal Justice—committed to evidence-based research that drives and informs public policymaking—visit: www.criminology.fsu.edu/.