The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Out of Control, Out of Wedlock

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Why has the number of single-parent households multiplied so dramatically in recent decades? An international team of American, British, and New Zealander scholars links the formation of single-parent households to the failure of young people to develop proper self-control.

Scrutinizing longitudinal data collected for 1,000 young people in New Zealand and Australia, the researchers first established the degree of self-control these individuals had developed by age 10. Taking self-control as the focus of their inquiry makes eminent sense to the researchers: “The need to delay gratification, control impulses, and modulate emotional expression is the earliest and most ubiquitous demand that societies place on their children, and success at many life tasks depends critically on children’s mastery of such self-control.” The importance of self-control indeed stands out when the researchers parse more than thirty years of follow-up data for these 1,000 children, looking for “the consequences of their childhood self-control for their health, wealth, and criminal offending.” These data clearly “support the inference that individuals’ self-control is a key ingredient in health, wealth, and public safety as well as a sensible policy target.”

In their summary of their findings, the researchers stress the importance of self-control in the formation of two-parent families. “Childhood self-control,” they write, “predicted whether or not these study members’ offspring were being reared in one-parent vs. two-parent households.” That is, when compared with peers with strong self-control, young people with little self-control were markedly more likely to have children who grew up in single-parent families (p<.001). For young people who lack self-control, the task of forging an enduring marriage is apparently just too difficult.

This international team quite plausibly asserts that its research on “babies now growing up in low-income single-parent households reveals that one generation’s low self-control disadvantages the next generation.” This team urges the adoption of measures “singling out self-control as a clear target for intervention policy.” After all, their findings clearly “imply that innovative policies that put self-control center stage might reduce a panoply of costs that now heavily burden citizens and governments.”

Perhaps the mantra, “If it feels good, do it,” is due for a revision.

(Terrie E. Moffitt et al., “A Gradient of Childhood Self-Control Predicts Health, Wealth, and Public Safety,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 108.7 [February 15, 2011]: 2693–98.)