Failure as the Antidote to Addiction

How do kids get hands-on experience in life, most especially of failure?

Posted Mar 27, 2014

In my existential view of addiction, people become detached from, and fearful of, real world experience and instead substitute some reassuring artificial experience to protect them against a world they feel they can't control.

Sound familiar? In many ways, it seems like the standard way kids grow up today, where they have virtually no chance to engage directly in activities in which their efforts make a difference, where they can plan, encounter, and overcome obstacles and their own mistakes and feel the pride of real, concrete accomplishment. It is my argument in my book, Addiction-Proof Your Child, that self-reinforcing experiences like these—ones that teach responsibility, self-efficacy, problem solving—are the only ways to protect children from addiction in a world replete with addictive opportunities. These opportunities include food, sex, online pornography and gambling, electronic games, and media, rampant pharmaceutical options (by which I mean prescription drugs, from OxyContin to Adderall), as well as the old, sometimes seemingly passé stand-bys, like illicit drugs and alcohol.

So how do parents, schools, and child-oriented organizations provide anti-addictive options for kids? Occasionally, urban schools create educational opportunities that attract creative, dedicated teachers who relish nothing so much as guiding kids through the hands-on world that the teachers themselves enjoy exploring.

I learned about The Workshop School, in Philadelphia, from my alumni magazine, The Pennsylvania Gazette (April/May issue)As its name suggests, TWS is organized around projects on which kids work as groups under the direction of young instructors with technical expertise. One project was building "a hybrid sports car using a chassis ordered off the Internet and a Volkswagen engine."

The Workshop School's principles are posted on walls throughout the building. Number one is "Put the work first"—expressing a philosophy that "authentic problems" should define the curriculum and drive the skills students need to develop. Second is "Trust students to make decisions." That's what kids need to know how to do in order to avoid addiction.

And, it's all about failure. 

"In a way, failure lies at the heart of The Workshop School's creation story." (Bold in original.) It started with a guest, Bobby Braun, then the chief technologist at NASA, who visited TWS's founders. Braun commented, "We ran into failure every day. I imagine you guys are too." This led to their defining insight:

Failure is an indispensable part of all innovation. When students design or build something and it fails, everyone can see that it failed; there is nothing abstract or removed about it. The most important part of the learning process is what happens next: trying to figure out why it failed and what can be done to fix it. This is how students learn to be resilient.

It's a tech school, but they've uncovered a fundamental anti-addiction insight. Addicts react to challenges and failure know. Somehow they failed to learn that failure is a necessary part of living, the only route to success, to coping, to dealing with the universe. And learning how to cope with failure can only occur when people, kids, encounter reality directly.

And, so, The Workshop School is the most effective anti-addiction tool they could have in the Philadelphia—or any other—school system, more effective than any number of anti-drug lectures and scare stories would be.

Stanton Peele has been at the cutting edge of addiction theory and practice since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has developed the on-line Life Process Program, and has written (with Ilse Thompson), Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life with The PERFECT Program. He can be found online on Facebook and Twitter.

P.S. (March 27):

Teaching Fundamental Insights

Submitted by cmw on March 27, 2014.cmw wrote:Great article! Kids and adults learn to need to respond to failures and life's difficulties without addictive behavior. A class clarifying these issues would be tremendous!
Where can I read more about the workshop?

Oops, I read your article again. This school is not purposely designed to treat addictive behavior but functions as fundamental anti-addiction insight.

I guess the real question is when is Dr. Peele going to start such a school?

I AM bcoming involved with such a program.

Submitted by Stanton Peeleon March 27, 2014.

I wrote about it in Facebook:

Art as Anti-Addiction.

Below I posted about Jerry Otero's great project with kids in Brooklyn (called Cre8tive YouTH*ink, led by artists Chris Stain and Billy Mode).

Jerry, of course, works with the Partnership at Drugfree.Org. And I see Cre8tive as being the very best antidote for addiction for kids, as I describe in Addiction-Proof Your Child ( Here are six things that make this true:

1. Engagement. Addicts can only concentrate on their addictions. What these kids are engaged in teaches them skills, gives them self-esteem, and gains the respect of others (i.e., self-care or, in Buddhism, lovingkindness).

2. Dealing with mistakes, even failures. Addicts are worst of all at dealing with setbacks. Billy tells kids what everyone who accomplishes something knows - trying, improving is learning from, coping with, mistakes.

3. Helping. "Each one teach one." The more experienced teach the less. They get and give esteem, practice communication, and care for others - while others learn they are cared about.

4. Community. Addicts are preoccupied with themselves - they give a hoot about others and the community. In Cre8tive kids learn they are part of - and to care for - the group.

5. Responsibility. As Jerry put it, "These kids, whose moms complain that they didn't make their beds this morning, all made sure to get here on time - early."

6. Planning and persistence. Beyond all else, addiction is about immediate gratification. As Chris described, Cre8ive involves goal-setting and then execution, placing the kids both in the moment and making them forward looking (the two poles of mindfulness).

Drug lectures teach kids nothing essential. The artistic activity-involvement in Cre8tive on the other hand, provides them with the primary skills and values with which to avoid addiction - the antidote for addiction. It is the MODEL for addiction prevention, as I describe in Addiction-Proof.

P.S.S. (March 27): In my residential treatment progam, we always got residents engaged in meaningful community projects -- they weren't there just for themselves.