“A 40-year study of 1,000 children revealed that childhood self-control strongly predicted adult success in people of high or low intelligence, in rich or poor,” according to Drs. Terrie E. Moffitt, Richie Poulton and Avshalom Caspi in the September-October 2013 issue of American Scientist.   

Called the Dunedin Study, this longitudinal research effort followed more than 1,000 New Zealand people by collecting information about their physical health, social well-being, and behavior, including self-control, during eight hours of stringent testing and examinations at ages 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 18, 21, 26 and 32.  

A remarkable 95 percent of the 1,007 surviving study subjects who began their participation in the early 1970s, and are now 38 years old, completed the most recent battery of tests.  While the research findings have application to most people, what struck me is how they help explain what leads to becoming successful agricultural producers.

What is self-control?  Low self-control involves both inherited and learned behaviors, such as low tolerance for frustration, poor impulse control, inability to persist, tendency to fly off the handle, distractibility, short attention span and acting before thinking.

Scientists who study the brain have identified brain structures that when activated increase self-control.  Some medications for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are thought to enhance those parts of the brain that regulate self-control.  Low self-control is not precisely the same as ADHD, for severe ADHD is a diagnosable brain disorder rather than an acquired behavior style.   

Genetics researchers are searching for specific sites on the human genome that might have a role in self-control, and they are making progress.  For example, Dr. Christian Montag and his colleagues at the University of Bonn, Germany have identified the genetic mutation that inclines people to become alarmed when threatened and to work incredibly hard when stressed.   

The Dunedin study indicates that what we learn from our environment has at least as significant influence as our genetic inclinations on our development of self-control.   Having attentive parents and other family members, good community supports such as caring pastors, school teachers, coaches, 4H leaders, and so forth, is essential.

Let’s look at the Head Start program.  When the federally-funded Head Start program began in 1965 it was thought that giving children from poor environments and those with disabilities advance preparation would increase their intelligence and ability to profit from later schooling.

The Head Start program did initially raise the IQ scores for the children who participated, but by the time these children reached high school, their intelligence gains washed out.  However, as Drs. Moffitt, Poulton and Caspi point out, the Head Start program unexpectedly succeeded in lowering former participants’ rates of teen pregnancy, school dropout, delinquency and work absenteeism.  

In other words, Head Start enhances behaviors involving self-discipline and healthy social responsibility.  Head Start isn’t a waste of taxpayers’ dollars!

How is self-discipline beneficial to farmers?  Australian and Scottish researchers found that farmers who persist through adversity and are conscientious are the most successful farmers in terms of remaining on the land and achieving financial profitability.  Both genetically inclined and learned, these behavior styles comprise a basic human drive, called the agrarian imperative, to acquire the land and other resources necessary to produce the food, fiber and shelter needed by humans to survive.

It takes incredible persistence in the face of adversity and enormous self-discipline for cattle producers who lost livestock when “Winter Storm Atlas” dumped snow from four inches to four feet deep on parts of South Dakota and surrounding states in early October this year to continue “hanging in there.”  It takes years of hard work for farm people whose homes and crops were damaged or destroyed by floods, droughts or tornadoes this year to fully recover.

It takes self-control to make good decisions about selling crops, buying land and farm equipment and to practice safety measures when harvesting and in a hurry to cover a lot of acres.  It takes self-discipline to know when to quit working and to spend time with the rest of the family, and to attend to personal health and sleep needs instead of pushing only to work.

The skills of self-discipline are best learned early in life.  The Dunedin study shows that the earlier in our children’s lives we seek to teach them how to manage themselves, to treat others respectfully, and to persist through adversity, the more likely they will endure and prosper in their adolescent and adulthood lives.  

Our obligation as adults is to model what we want our children to emulate.  Farm children who work with family members and endure adversities with their parents usually become the most successful farmers.  But don’t be afraid to say “No.”  Be mindful that our children will behave as we behave.

Dr. Rosmann lives near Harlan, Iowa.  Contact him at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.

By Mike Rosmann, Ph.D.

Share your thoughts. Email Dr. Rosmann at [email protected], or visit his website at www.agbehavioralhealth.com.  You can call him at his office in Harlan, Iowa at 712-235-6100.