Self-control is part of a group of skills that helps kids - and adults - manage their thoughts, actions and emotions so they can get things done.
Reading and telling stories to children, having rules around screen time, warm and responsive parenting - these are some of the key family behaviours associated with better self-control in children, a new study shows.
But experts say it is a complex skill that develops over time and fluctuates in early childhood.
The new study is part of Growing Up in New Zealand, the country's largest longitudinal study currently following the lives of 6,000 children from before they were born.
It is the first study of its kind on self-control development in the first five years of life, observing preschoolers at the 9-months, 2-year, and 4-and-a-half-year points.
The majority of children studied- 63 per cent - have average to high levels of self-control; only 1 per cent show persistently low levels of it.
"So most kids are doing really well, and if your child is throwing tantrums or not being very attentive at 2 years old, chances are in a year's time they're going to be better at it," said researcher Dr Elizabeth Peterson.
"Let's not panic, because there is a lot of change through these early years," said the associate professor of psychology at the University of Auckland.
Self-control is part of a group of skills that helps kids - and adults - manage their thoughts, actions and emotions so they can get things done. Learning starts in early childhood and continues into a person's 20s.
Prevailing research shows that higher levels of self-control in childhood are associated with improved health and financial outcomes, life satisfaction, and lower levels of substance abuse and criminal convictions later in life.
What seems to help children learn this key skill are "everyday things that everyone can do", said Peterson.
• Telling and reading stories to your children
• Children with less screen time, with rules around media exposure
• Warm and responsive parenting
• Warm rather than hostile couple relationships
• Positive early neighbourhood environments
"Having rules, having structure, showing kids that you can calm down and manage your emotions, talk about it, and parents modelling what good emotional regulation and self-control looks like," she added.
These findings point to the need to invest in families for whom day-to-day parenting may be a challenge, said Karen Magrath, national adviser at Plunket, New Zealand's largest health and support service for children under five.
"Providing these families with more access to support them in their parenting journey is critical," Magrath said.
How much screen time?
While the latest research doesn't specify a limit on screen time, Plunket does.
"Children under 2 shouldn't spend any time in front of screens, and for children between 2 and 5 years we would recommend less than an hour each day," said Magrath.
Self-control is an important skill, but there is a dark side to it.
Too much self-control has been linked to rigid thinking and behaviour, less creativity and poorer mental health, said Peterson, who is calling for more work in this area.
She also points to the need for more research on how self-control develops and stabilises into middle childhood and beyond.