FORGET programs to curb antisocial behaviour in school-aged children. By then, it may be far too late. A long-term child development study shows that by three years old, it is possible to predict the adult he or she will become.
The study, which follows 1000 children into adulthood, shows uncontrolled and unruly toddlers are far more likely to have antisocial problems and end up in trouble with the law. Timid toddlers end up as shy adults and well-adjusted three year olds stay well adjusted in adulthood.
The findings, by researchers at Otago University in Dunedin. New Zealand, have fuelled a debate among child psychologists whether a child's early personality and childhood experiences affect the adult. They suggest that programs aimed at correcting wayward juvenile behaviour need to start with preschoolers.
The study — funded by health research councils in New Zealand, the United States and Britain tracked the lives of 1000 babies born at Dunedin's Queen Mary Hospital in 1972 and 1978. They were assessed by child psychologists every two years from the age of three to 15, then at 18 and 21.
Professor Avshalon Caspi, of the Institute of Psychiatry in London, said the study was "the most comprehensive evidence to date" that personality traits apparent in toddlers continued into maturity.
Earlier intervention for problem children was better than later, "although later is better than nothing at all". At three years old, one child in 10 was an "uncontrollable" toddler — impulsive, emotionally unstable, irritable and restless. By 18, they had become impulsive thrill-seekers, aggressive and alienated from society. At 21, they had difficulty bonding in relationships and were twice as likely as others in their age group to have become involved in crime.
Children who had been timid scared and socially ill-at-ease at three became cautious and non-assertive adults. They often suffered depression and had few friends. The well-adjusted 40% of youngsters who showed "appropriate friendliness and self-control" at three grew into well-rounded teenagers and adults.
Researchers think girls are less prone to delinquency because they suffer fewer of the problems identified as the triggers that send boys down the path to minor crime: delayed verbal and motor development, hyper-activity and learning disabilities.
Girls who spend more time with boys have more chance of becoming delinquents, according to the study. And girls who attend all-female schools commit few crimes.
Study founder Phil Silva thought his work would last a year. Now the world's best researchers compete to be part of the project. What started simply as a child development study has been described as "the richest archive the world will have on human development".
"It's been such an incredible investment to have got to this point," Dr Silva said. "It would cost at least $25 million to replicate, so we must go on."
At 26 and 27, most study members have completed their formal education and have careers under way. Many now have young families of their own. Yet most still chose to turn up for their eight-hour assessments (97% at ages 18 and 21).
Others had a good excuse not to. By 21, there had been 18 deaths among the group — ten as a result of illness, six from traffic accidents and two through suicide.
Participants are questioned about all aspects of their lives, including their sexual relationships and use of drugs. The data they divulge is coded by numbers, not names.
They have a dental examination, and their blood pressure, height, weight and fitness are tested.
The study has echoes of the popular British documentary series Seven Up, which traced the lives of a group of seven year olds from different backgrounds.
Most bear out the study's conclusions, though some changed dramatically. The show's most devastating example was Neil Hughes — a bright and bubbly seven year old who became a lonely and troubled adult. However, viewers were relieved to see in the latest episode that he had managed to make a success of his life.
The Dunedin study's other findings include:
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