40-Year Study: 5 Words That Will Change a Child’s Life

In a 40-year study, University of Chicago's Professor James Joseph Heckman uncovered a profound secret: Successful adults share one defining trait, which can be summed up in 5 simple words.

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Parents crave to uncover the secrets and methods of raising children who live happy and successful lives. From this perspective, Dr. James Joseph Heckman, a Professor from the University of Chicago, has spent 40 years researching to discover that:

Individuals with strong non-cognitive skills as young children often earn more, own homes at higher rates, and experience greater levels of happiness as adults. This implies that children who have great potential as adults are often seen to have strong non-cognitive skills early on.

What are non-cognitive skills?

When it comes to nurturing their children, many parents tend to rely on cognitive indicators such as grades, IQ scores, and educational attainment to judge their capabilities, categorizing them as bright or average.

However, according to many studies, it’s not cognitive ability but rather non-cognitive ability that is the key determinant of a child’s future development.

In psychology, non-cognitive ability is often described with easy-to-understand concepts like “character” or “personality traits.” Examples are a child’s attention span, self-control, perseverance, empathy, and motivation to learn.

Non-cognitive skills have become the focus of parents and educational professionals in Europe, America, Singapore, and Japan, with growing emphasis on developing these “soft skills” in children.

Sometimes children who excel in their studies struggle to adapt to social life, indicating a deficit in non-cognitive capacity.

Non-cognitive skills have become the focus of many parents and educational professionals

When is the golden period to develop non-cognitive skills in children?

An ancient East Asian proverb declares, “Observe a child at three, and you can predict his appearance at eighty,” reflecting the view that the behaviors and traits of young children are indicative of their future. At this stage, it is not grades or educational attainment that are the hinges of destiny, but rather “non-cognitive ability” that is the crucial factor.

Psychological research indicates that the early years, particularly before the age of seven, play an extremely important role in shaping a child’s personality. Specifically, the period from three to six years old, often referred to as the “cementing stage,” describes a child’s strong capacity for absorption and adaptation. Studies show that up to 85%-90% of a person’s character, aspirations, and lifestyle are shaped during this time.

Additionally, Professor Casby of the Institute of Psychiatry in London, England, conducted a study of over 1,000 children under the age of seven to verify the importance of this period for a child’s development. The results confirmed that the language and behavior of these children before the age of seven could accurately predict their personality, personal characteristics, and potential when they reached adulthood.

The period before the age of seven plays an extremely important role in shaping a child’s personality

How to nurture non-cognitive abilities in children

One might think that developing ill-defined skills like non-cognitive abilities in children is an elusive task. You want to foster these skills in your child but don’t know where to start. However, through modeling, you can influence your child subtly yet effectively.

Parents are always the first and most important role models for their children to learn from, and their every word and action profoundly impacts their child’s personality development and non-cognitive skills. Therefore, before their child turns seven, parents should take on a role-modeling approach to help their child learn non-cognitive skills.

For example, when parents deliberately put their phones aside after returning home and spend two hours immersed in books, their children observe and imitate, thereby enhancing their ability to focus and their passion for reading. Or, another action parents can take is to teach their children to respect their elders, to be kind to those who are less fortunate, and to empathize with others’ difficulties. Through these actions, their children will gradually learn to develop emotional intelligence and other non-cognitive skills.

Frequently asked questions

Non-cognitive skills are the key to a child’s future development and success. An ancient East Asian proverb says, “Observe a child at three, and you can predict his appearance at eighty,” highlighting the importance of early childhood development. Psychological research supports this, indicating that the early years, especially before age seven, are crucial for shaping a child’s personality and future potential.

The golden period for developing non-cognitive skills is during the early years, particularly before a child turns seven. This is often referred to as the “cementing stage,” where children have a strong capacity for absorption and adaptation. Studies show that up to 85%-90% of a person’s character, aspirations, and lifestyle are shaped during this critical period.

Parents are the first and most important role models for their children. By adopting a role-modeling approach before their child turns seven, parents can subtly and effectively influence their child’s development. For example, putting away phones and reading books can encourage children to focus and develop a love of reading. Teaching children to respect their elders, be kind to others, and empathize with their difficulties will also help them develop emotional intelligence and other non-cognitive skills.
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