Dax Shepard is 'very much an open book' with his kids: 'I tell them I'm an alcoholic'

·13 min read
Dax Shepard launched the Nurture vs. Nurture podcast with clinical psychologist Dr. Wendy Mogel this spring. (Photos: Getty and Armchair Productions; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Dax Shepard launched the Nurture vs. Nurture podcast with clinical psychologist Dr. Wendy Mogel this spring. (Photos: Getty and Armchair Umbrella; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

Welcome to So Mini Ways, Yahoo Life's parenting series on the joys and challenges of childrearing.

Thanks to his interviews with just about every bold-faced name under the sun, from Prince Harry to Hillary Clinton to Ronan Farrow to John Legend, actor and podcaster Dax Shepard has made being an Armchair Expert an artform. With his new parenting podcast, Nurture vs. Nurture, however, he's handing the mic to an actual expert, clinical psychologist and New York Times best-selling author Dr. Wendy Mogel, who spends each episode speaking to a wide range of caregivers — single parents, military families, foster parents, LGBTQ couples and so on — about the issues and fears they're confronting as they raise their children.

"There are so many different ways to raise children and they turn out perfectly fine or good enough, and parents have this idea that they have to get it exactly right," Mogel tells Yahoo Life. 

It's easy to see why Mogel's thoughtful and reassuring approach and ability to break down common childcare conundrums appealed to Shepard, who has two daughters with wife Kristen Bell. Here, he and Mogel open up about parenting styles, "radical candor" and why making mistakes is par for the parenting course. 

Tell us about the Nurture vs. Nurture podcast, for those who aren't yet familiar with it.

Dax Shepard: Well, I can just say from my point of view, we have interviewed 350 people and Wendy was one of the people that just constantly ruminated in my mind as someone who was both an amazing guest, but also had a message that I just noticed deeply needed to be spread in my world, where parents are evaluating themselves every five minutes and driving themselves insane and their children insane. I just thought her message is so needed currently. And the way she delivers it, with so much humor and candor, I was just in love with. I think it's such a great message for parents to hear. We approached her and said, "Would you like to do something in the parenting space, because you're an expert on it?" and thank God she said yes. [The episodes have] turned out so far beyond what I hoped it could ever be. So we're so happy with it. 

Something that struck me, as a parent, is Dr. Wendy's reference on the podcast to children being "bilingual," which helps explain why, for instance, my toddler acts a certain way with me, versus being a perfect angel with his sitter.

Dr. Wendy Mogel: There's a whole different style of communication that they use with you or with the childcare provider or with — maybe before the pandemic — a child your son was playing with on the playground; that's a little bit of complicated choreography and beautiful to watch.

Healthy kids tend to behave worst with their mom, if the mom is the primary child care provider. If it's the dad, they behave worse with the dad. We want them to remember their manners and etiquette and the proper decorum with other people, and then when they come home, they just let down their hair, because that's really tiring. ... So I hope he's horrible with you. The kids I worry about a lot are the ones who are very, very well behaved with their parents and act terribly at school because those are kids who are worried about or afraid of their parents. 

DS: This is exactly what's brilliant about the show, is that you have this fear as a parent that something must be wrong. And then you come to find out this is exactly what should be happening. This is proof that your child feels unconditional love from you and can be his worst self around you. And what I think is the best part of our show and Armchair Expert is this very unique and privileged experience with these people you've thought of as something, a celebrity. You get to find out they're human, they don't like who they see in the mirror... all these things are so comforting. 

And her show is then beyond that with the level of vulnerability and honesty you're hearing between these parents in what is, in another setting, a therapy session. So you're hearing just total vulnerability and you're relating so much. I've listened to episodes where they're tackling a problem that Kristen and I don't deal with, but then five minutes in, now we're dealing with one of the problems. What's great about it being Nurture vs. Nurture is that Kristen and I have a totally different idea of what will get these kids to the finish line. And it's almost opposite at times. 

How does your parenting style compare to Kristen's?

DS: If I had to write a book on parenting, it would be "soft and firm." That would be my approach. I don't yell. I'm quiet. I try to use very few words. But you don't ask Dad twice. When Dad gives you an answer, that is the answer. And they've picked that up; they know that now. And Kristen — thank God — is endlessly nurturing. They can complain ad nauseam. I don't have the appetite for it, and what I'm so grateful for is that there's someone in the house that does, and that there's someone in the house who can get them out of the house in five minutes or get them to bed in seven minutes. I've come to love the fact that we're both filling these drastically different roles, and I'm trying to accept that I'm not right, she's not right. Just, I do it this way, and they're learning how to deal with someone that does it this way, and they're learning how to deal with someone who does it her way. I don't think it's necessarily bad. The main takeaway for me when I listen to Wendy is: relax. It's all happening. You love them. You're 90 percent of the way there. 

Wendy, there are so many different approaches to parenting: gentle method, attachment, etc. How important is it to settle on one from the start? Or is it better to see what kind of child you have and go from there? And can you switch? Maybe you're a nurturer but feel you need to be more soft and firm because your kid isn't listening — can you change tactics without them being confused?

WM: Yes, and yes and yes, to all three things that you just said. So you can start out with a game plan, you can memorize a parenting book, and then this creature comes with their own temperament and their own interests. You can sort of think of them as a seed that came in a packet without a label, and you don't know what kind of flower you're going to get, you don't know what season it will bloom. And your job is mostly to provide sufficient food and water and stand back and wait and shift your responses based on this developing creature and really make a lot of mistakes because that's the only way you can learn what is effective. 

And the "soft and firm" has so much range. There's soft that's really mushy and sticky and dangerous and creepy and bad. And there's firm that is cruel and harsh and kind of thoughtless and narcissistic. 

Our last episode was a military family, and they talked about this military slogan, which is "shut up and color." I'd never heard it before, but they say it in the military all the time. Think about the layers of meaning of that, because it's shut up, don't express yourself, don't share your thoughts and feelings. And "color" is kind of...

DS: Condescending. Like, "go do your stupid busywork."

WM: So that's what they [the parents in the military family] know best, both of them. One of the things I've been thinking about lately is that some parents' inner child is unconsciously envious of the loving care that they're taking of their actual child. So if you were raised in a military family and now you're in the military and you're a firefighter during a pandemic — because that's who our guest was — and then you come home to these three really squirrely kids, there's some little power struggle that goes on inside you, between your deep appreciation for their freedom to express themselves and the frustration you feel going back to old stuff. Wait, I never got to do that. Shut up and color. 

DS: What's really interesting for me personally is that coupled with, am I actually preparing them for the real world? And if I'm in the military, I'm especially thinking, this is a gnarly world, but we don't have time for your grievances. You need to show up, put your boots on and do it. [There's] a fear that I'm going to turn out this kid that's not going to be able to succeed. 

What I experience all the time is this obsession ... I point out to [my kids], "You know, we get to order pizza once a week. I only got to order it once every three months in my house." Like, I need you to understand how good you have it. And then another voice in my head going, They have it how they have it. I had it how I had it.

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How much of how a parent was raised by their own parents — strict, lenient, whatever — impacts how they then go on to nurture their own kids? Is it someone's nature affecting how they nurture?

WM: It's both your nature and your nurture. So there's the whole psychoanalytic piece, which is: we are nothing but our defenses against our childhood experiences. And the other part is just culture; that's the nurture part too. Almost everybody says to me, "I never would have been able to speak to my parents the way these incredibly rude and horrible children speak to me." That's a cultural change and it's one side of the wonderful closeness that parents have with their kids now.  

We all have a legacy of grievances and strength. So with every parent that I work with in my practice, I always talk to them about the good parts of their parents' parenting. Even when they have parents who are really out there — I mean really destructive — what do you wish to carry forward as part of the legacy of goodness and ethics and values and tenderness and fun from your own childhood? Sometimes we forget the joy that we experienced, because it's so invigorating to hold onto the indignation and the grudges and the grievances and the "that's why I'm so (whatever neurosis we are) ... it's because of them!"

DS: I have more of an egomaniacal thing where I like me. If my kids turned out to be me, I wouldn't be upset. Whatever my mom did — I have complaints, but I'm inclined to take a lot of what she did. 

Is there something specific that she did that you try to implement?

DS: I've heard many things that I'm doing wrong in Wendy's show, but this one I know. Did you ever see Captain Fantastic? I loved it. And I'd say my mother was as close to that [Viggo Mortensen] character as you could get. Like, if I asked her what anal sex was at 5 years old, she told me exactly what it was. She said, "There's a lot of nerve endings in the anus. Some people find it pleasurable and many do not." And I was like, "OK, good to go. Got that info." There wasn't a question she was afraid to field. And she just told me the absolute truth. And I have pretty much done that. Like, people will ask me, "How do you talk to your kids about being an addict?" And I'm like, "Well, I tell them I'm an alcoholic. And their grandpa was, and their grandpa's grandpa was, and I go to AA every Tuesday and this is what we do. I'm very much an open book. 

But I have found out from Wendy that there is a line. ... The only thing I won't introduce to them is some kind of global threat that none of us have control over that I don't want them obsessing about. That's pretty much where I draw the line. I won't introduce some impending disaster approaching us that we can't do anything about. I don't really want them ruminating on that, but I talk to them all the time about sexual abuse and adults who molest kids, and this happens ... it just happened. Yesterday we were listening to Michael Jackson on the way to a friend's house. And my 8-year-old said, "Oh, I wish he was still alive." And I said, "Yeah, it's probably good he's dead." And she said, "Why?" And I said, "Well, he sexually abused a lot of kids and that came out after he died, and he would probably be in prison now." She's like, "Oh wow." And you know, that's the Michael Jackson conversation in our house. 

WM: What Dax is talking about is radical candor. And we are so phobic in our culture about certain topics: sex, death, money. Those are the big ones. We'll talk about politics forever, but with those three, parents are panicked. It's so important to be relaxed and frank with kids. And you heard his tone — his mother talking to him about anal sex and him talking to the girls about Michael Jackson just the same way they talked about the Easter egg hunt yesterday [like], "This is information that's useful for you to have and I'm happy to share it with you."

The other end of that continuum is oversharing, and that's when parents turn a child into an ally that replaces other adults. So — and this is going to be an exaggeration, but not so much — Mom might say to a 14-year-old daughter, because they love to step into this, "I'm thinking of leaving your father, but I'm not quite sure. Here are the pros. Here are the cons. What do you think?" We want you to say this to your best friend, not to your daughter. The term in psychology is "parentified child," and that steals their childhood from them and that's how you steal their innocence. 

Two things [to avoid]: turning a child into your support system, and the other part is [sharing] global fears over which you have no control, which only makes children anxious to phobic if you don't share with them things that you're doing, or that the family can do, to right the scales of justice or what the planet needs.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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