It's disturbing to picture your kindergartner in a casino, but maybe you ought to try. American kids are born into a culture that loves its gambling, and the passion is only growing, as financial hardships sweeten the ever alluring prospect of a lucky break. The danger, of course, is that gambling can lead to compulsive gambling and compulsive gambling can be a life wrecker. Now, a new study in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine suggests that it may be possible to spot the people most at risk when they're as young as 5 years old. (Read about the significance of peer influence on children.)
Problem gambling, like all addictions, is at least partly rooted in poor impulse control, and if there's any place people make their want-it-now neediness known, it's in kindergarten. Psychologist Linda Pagani of the Sainte-Justice University Hospital Research Center and the University of Montreal conducted a longitudinal study that began in 1999, when she assembled a sample group of 163 kindergartners with a median age of 5.5 years. The kids' teachers filled out a questionnaire in which they rated each child's degree of inattentiveness, distractibility and hyperactivity on a scale of 1 to 9. Pagani tallied the scores and then tucked the findings away. (See 10 things to do in Las Vegas.)
Six years later, she conducted follow-up interviews with the same children and asked whether any of them had begun gambling. The results were surprising. Although the kids were still a long way from being old enough for Vegas or the track, many admitted that they were already playing bingo, cards, video poker or other video games for money; buying lottery tickets; or placing bets on professional sports.
"The majority of kids were not engaging in any of these activities," says Pagani, "but the fact that any of them were was unexpected."
What struck Pagani most was how predictable the identities of the gamblers were. When she referred back to the ratings from kindergarten, she found that every one-unit increase on the impulsivity scale correlated with a 25% jump in the likelihood a child would be gambling by sixth grade. "The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual already refers to gambling specifically as an impulse-control disorder," she says, citing the official text that outlines diagnostic criteria for mental disorders. "And then there were our findings showing that."
Knowing early on which children are headed for trouble can pay off in a number of ways. For one thing, it can help families wise up. Some of the parents of the kids in the study saw a little gambling as a minor thing, and a number of them even bought lottery tickets for their kids as a reward for good behavior. That, clearly, sends the wrong message. "Scratch-and-win games are for adults," Pagani says flatly. (See pictures of Las Vegas.)
What's more, not only can kids' behavior benefit when impulse issues are spotted early on, so can their brains. Preschool is a time when the prefrontal lobes, which are the center of executive functions and what Pagani and others call "effortful control" are just developing. The better the brain can be trained at this stage, the better it performs later in life. Pagani cites a 2007 study published in the journal Science that showed that simple attention-boosting training taught in kindergarten improved focus and concentration in later years. "You can introduce a cost-effective program and reap enormous benefits," she says.
Pagani plans to check in with the kids in her survey again in another six years, when they're finishing high school and preparing to enter the larger world with its larger temptations. Even if they were born too late to benefit from her findings, she thinks other kids can. (See the best and worst mothers of all time.)
"We need to think of impulse-control training as a long-term investment plan," she says, "one that can lead to less addiction, less gambling, a lower dropout rate and lower unemployment." That's a far bigger payoff than you'll ever get playing blackjack or craps.