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Inactive children to become middle-aged couch potatoes

Following a new report published this week which suggests children who lead inactive lives are likely to grow up to become middle-aged couch potatoes, Professor Jim McKenna from Leeds Beckett University’s Active Lifestyles Research Centre, offers his thoughts.

Parents, how physically active are you right now? Recent evidence from the 1970 British Cohort Study suggests that not only do parents’ inactivity strongly imprint on their children but also that inactive habits at age 10 remain 32 years later*. This poses at least one big question; ‘How satisfied are you with your parenting?’ A similar question for those of us with no children is, ‘How satisfied are you with the way you are living right now?’

This study is not the first to show the power of early life experiences in directing long-term trajectories. Most of these prospective studies point in similar directions. In what follows, I will focus on one well known example for its clear and potent messages**. This prospective study of self-control – assessed through a composite of scores established at ages 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 - showed that better self-control (defined as deploying willpower, self-regulation, conscientiousness and so on in daily life) was consistently associated with better health, wealth and safety outcomes 21 years later. Yes, you read that correctly, 21 years later.

The behaviours that signalled low self-control are important. They included problems taking turns, failing to finish tasks, having a short attention span and flying off the handle. Where children achieved higher self-control scores, 21 years later - and compared to their low scoring counterparts - they did almost three times better in most measures of criminality, personal relationships, educational engagement and attainment, substance dependence and financial health. The links were consistent irrespective of the childhood assessments being made by teachers, parent or peers.

Such studies have much to say about how humans (i) learn, (ii) develop learning to create new habits and (iii) use habits to indicate ‘personality’. Drawing together these themes, it is important to acknowledge that self-control can be learned through repetition. Once it is learned, the brain uses ‘chunking’ to automate these learned responses – this saves using its scarce thinking resources - so they become habits. Once it’s a habit, self-control can be applied to a range of scenarios associated with notions of success and satisfaction - because that’s what you do!  In the time it takes to convert a learned behaviour into a habit, other people are already using repeated behaviours to infer ‘personality’.

Given it’s centrality to human performance, it is important to consider how self-control is acquired and/or learned. Crucially, since parents can be so influential in the lives of most children, their patterns of self-control quickly rub off on their children. This is because young children have little direct control of their environments and they readily mimic what goes on around them. Equally, since their main conscious brain activity is emotion-based, more self-controlled parenting results in more self-controlled children. To that end, it is important to ‘show’ self-control in front of children.

The hateful side of this logic is that parents with low self-control may be perpetuating harmfully low self-control in their children. Yet, all is not lost. When self-control improved across childhood - perhaps through school programmes centred on character education, or through smarter parenting – the 21-year trajectories also improved. This evidence seems to justify regarding self-control as a ‘premier league’ habit. By acquiring it, we help children – and people around us - to make more of any life opportunities.

To my mind, that makes self-control a priority for every educational institute. Beyond that, parents can exert powerful influences through regularly and frequently modelling self-control to their children. At the same time, every educational institution can exert a major influence – or not – on developing positive self-control habits. That influence applies to pupils and to staff and points to what’s been fashionably labelled ‘organisational habits’.

My final point extends these ideas to contemporary HE students. Thinking about students we might understand as ‘under-performing’, what levels of self-control do they depict? What routines do they demonstrate? These are important because they are precursors to the habits they will carry into adulthood and into parenting. Further, as academics, what types of self-control do we display and/or reward to encourage them into better ways?

It matters now and for a long time to come.

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Professor James McKenna

Jim McKenna is Carnegie Professor of Physical Activity and Health and Head of the Active Lifestyles Research Centre in the Carnegie Faculty.

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