Skip to main content

Building grit with joyFred Lum/The Globe and Mail

In her interview with Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Globe columnist Margaret Wente learned that the ability to stick with projects is one of the most reliable predictors of success.

This information presents an important challenge for parents.

We all want our children to develop "grit," the ability to persevere. What's hard is that our natural instinct is to protect our children from hurt and failure. Are we to override this instinct and – once they're on a secure psychological footing – sit back and watch them get into trouble?

Over the years of running an arts school, I have discovered a very effective way to outsource some of these character-building experiences: Enroll your child in an arts program. There's no better place to develop grit.

Music students learn that the best way to improve is by understanding their mistakes and taking the time required to correct them. They also learn that the impossible can be made possible – that the jumble of black notes can, with hard work, become beautiful music.

Students of the visual arts face an intimidating blank page when they sit down to work. With nothing clear and fixed to hang on to, they're outside their comfort zone. They must learn to tolerate uncertainty and cultivate the belief that everything will come together eventually.

Drama students learn that there are many ways of improvising or interpreting a line or a character, and they must present many variations before finding one that satisfies them and their director. They must also learn to deal with the disappointment of not being cast in a role they've auditioned for. According to Paul Tough, the ability to recover from setbacks is a significant predictor of future success.

Dance students need to spend hours developing their muscles at the barre and on the floor before they can even begin to dance. To succeed, they must persist, often in the face of tremendous physical discomfort.

For arts students, not getting it right the first time is part of the learning process, an inevitable part of developing a skill. They don't give up at the first sign of failure, and they welcome criticism because they know it keeps them on the path to mastery.

As a bonus, they often pursue excellence in other areas, because a desire to do things well becomes ingrained in their being.

I've heard story after story of students whose lives have turned around as a result of serious art study. At 14, Fatih Stanley was doing poorly at school until he started studying art. Driven by his passion for the subject and an inspiring teacher, he graduated from high school with a prestigious CIBC Youth Vision Award that paid for his entire university education. He became the first in his extended family to attend university.

Fatih's passion gave him a good reason to get up in the morning.

Children and adults who pursue an art feel a similar passion. At arts school, they know they will get feedback that will enable them to improve, they feel happy when they're challenged in this way and they look forward to the next challenge. Their passion is what motivates them to seek out criticism, to persist in practising their art and to learn from their failures.

In short, they're developing grit with joy rather than with tears.

Lola Rasminsky is the founding director of Toronto's Avenue Road Arts School.

Interact with The Globe