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How to raise children to live a long life

Living a long life involves a lot more than just eating well, exercising, and getting plenty of sleep.  Certain psychological and social traits may be the key to living into your 80s and beyond according to Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin in their book “The Longevity Project.”

Psychologist Lewis Terman began collecting data in 1921 on the lives of 1,500 children to determine what factors were related to longevity. The results have some important implications for the way we raise our children according to Friedman’s recent summary of key findings in the December 2011 journal APA Monitor.

  • Stress is not always bad. “….those who worked the hardest lived the longest.  The responsible and successful achievers thrived in every way, especially if they were dedicated to things and people beyond themselves.”
  • Conscientiousness was a key personality trait highly correlated with living a long life. Conscientious people tended to live healthier lifestyles, be involved in positive relationships, and have more successful work experiences.
  • A strong sense of resolve is critical, since research indicated that “…persistence turns out to be one of the best predictors of health and long life.”
  • “…the single strongest social predictor of an early death in adulthood is parental divorce in early childhood,” but that doesn’t mean that divorce is always bad for kids. Divorce represents a serious stress but it can promote resiliency in kids if managed successfully.
  • Marriage is not always correlated with a long life, particularly for women. The quality of your marriage was the important factor. Women who separated from unhealthy relationships lived longer than those in unhappy marriages.

How does this research affect the way we raise our children? First, let’s stop trying to protect our kids from stressful events. Many parents make extraordinary efforts to shelter their children. Eighty years of research indicates this is the wrong approach.  Rather, we need to teach our kids how to handle tough situations. This results in an emotional resiliency that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.

Second, traits such as persistence and conscientiousness are highly correlated with living a long life. We should be talking and teaching our kids more about exhibiting good self-control rather than having a positive self-concept. This means saying “no” to something that may feel good today for the benefit of something better tomorrow. When was the last time you complimented your children for having good self-control and not acting impulsively on their feelings?

Finally, the Longevity Project’s data on divorce has provoked much discussion. Divorce does result in kids being at substantial risk, but I suspect less so than growing up in a psychologically unhealthy home. Teaching our kids how to develop and maintain meaningful social relationships is critical. They learn this from watching how we treat our spouse and others rather than listening to what we say.

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