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Matthew McConaughey Had A Dream Of Bob Dylan. He Turned It Into A Perfect Kids Book

The most lively celebrity dad on the planet says kids should embrace “contradictory thoughts.”

Originally Published: 
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There are few human beings cooler than Matthew McConaughey. Like a Jedi master with a Texas drawl, McConaughey puts you at ease and makes you alert simultaneously. Conversation with him is like strong iced coffee; it’s refreshing, but you’re super-amped up by it, and maybe, at some point, it might get spilled on you. If you’re a dad, and you are looking for an imaginary spirit to guide you in being better, Matthew McConaughey is a pretty good model. On some level, we’d all be better off having a little Matthew McConaughey inside of us, unraveling the mysteries of fatherhood with his unique wisdom.

As a father of three kids, Livingston (10), Vida (13), and Levi (15), McConaughey knows a thing or two about hands-on parenting. “We’re hugging family,” McConaughey tells Fatherly, as if we couldn’t have guessed. Talking to McConaughey about his worldview feels like it should end in a bear hug, and perhaps, because we’re not talking to him about movies or TV shows. As of this writing, the SAG-AFTRA strike was ongoing, and McConaughey is very much in support of his union. And this means, freed of shop talk, McConaughey is allowed to be fully in philosopher mode. As of Sept. 12, 2023, he’s got a new children’s book out called Just Because. With whimsical illustrations from Renée Kurilla, the book is a series of what McConaughey describes as “couplets.” At first blush, you may think it's a series of lessons in civics or common sense manners. But the simple poetry of the book contains multitudes.

With Just Because McConaughey is unpacking important emotional issues for kids, without becoming saccharine. For him, it’s clear that the job of loving our kids is serious business, and with this book, he’s communicating that, minus any trite platitudes. A lot of celebrities can write kids books, but none of those celebrities are McConaughey.

Fatherly sat down with Matthew McConaughey ahead of the publication of Just Because. We didn’t talk about the strike. We didn’t talk about those Yellowstone rumors. We didn’t ask him about the crying scene in Interstellar even though we really wanted to. Instead, we got into what makes this book tick, and in doing so, McConaughey touched open vibrant emotional lessons for kids and adults alike.

Matthew McConaughey with his wife, Camila Alves; his children, Livingston, Levi, and Vida; and his mother, Kay McConaughey, in 2019.

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The book is so heartfelt. As a dad of a 6-year-old with big feelings, something I loved about it is that it has affirmations, but it’s also got warnings. And I wondered if that came out of your parenting? Why a mix of both affirmations and warnings?

While I always lean to affirmations, it’d be irresponsible not to throw the warnings in. There’s consequences for every decision we make, good or bad. Now, somehow along the way, we started to think “Oh there’s consequences” as a bad thing. But when you tell a kid what consequences mean, then suddenly they’re like, “It’s always gotta be bad?” No, there are good consequences too. It’s straight-*ss 50-50, you know what I mean?

I think I know what you mean! I guess the question is what are the overt lessons in the book?

I talk to kids all the time, and I think one thing we want our children to understand better — and most of us still need to learn more of as adults — is delayed gratification. So that ties into bullying, right? You can steal the ball and yeah, that feels good in the moment. Then all of a sudden you’re over there and you got the ball, and everyone else is playing. You kind of feel crappy about stealing the ball. And there’s things you can do in the moment that may feel good, but you’re going to have the proverbial hangover later. That’s the warning part, I guess.

Children don’t project further than right now. Most of us adults don’t project further than now or after tonight next week or next month. I think a form of maturity is how far forward can you project in your life. What race are you racing? What decisions can we make? Well, the earlier we start that with children, I think the better. Just giving them a little bit of consideration of, saying, well, there will be a consequence to this. Now, is that a warning? Well, you can call it a warning, but it is reality, and go ahead and kind of give that a little bit of a measure and then make a choice. Ultimately, I think the book’s about choices.

Kids sometimes have pressure to feel absolute about certain things. But, come on — they’re children, man!

It also seems like it’s a book having a conversation in your own head. Is that right?

Yeah, it’s about being a little more lenient with yourself and understanding you can have two feelings at once. Understand that your appetite may be someone else’s indigestion. Your indigestion may be someone else’s appetite. Understand that when they see blue and you see green, it may be turquoise. You may all three be right, and that’s OK. But measure those up and there’s some amnesty in that, but not amnesty without responsibility. It’s about forgiveness, sure. But it’s about responsibility, too.

While reading the book, I couldn’t help but think about your advocacy for making sure our schools are safer just physically from guns. But I think that has to start with mental health. That has to start with kids having mental health early. Did any of that thinking impact the way you wrote this book?

Look, the bill that we passed is about securing schools physically and mental health. Mental health is an adventure and an opportunity that we’re on, have been on, and we’ll be on forever. What’s the best time you can talk to kids about certain issues? Why did [my wife], Camila, start the Just Keep Livin’ Foundation in Title I high schools? We want to get them young before they’re actually out there and adults. The same crime they commit as a teenager that got them detention on Saturday will put them in jail or worse later on. So, let’s get them early. And this book, I think, is an example of that — let’s work on how their mind works and their considerations early on so they can better navigate life, so they can better navigate their own time.

This goes back to children being introspective...

... I think, a lot of this is conversations that children are going to have with themselves. And again, by admitting to themselves “I have contradictory thoughts.” But also about teaching kids the difference between wants and needs. I talk to my kids about that all the time. There’s a difference. Kids are after what they want. The need is where responsibility comes in and keeps them trying to make the right decisions, the decisions that will make them healthier in their mind and their body and their spirit.

Kids sometimes have pressure to feel absolute about certain things. But, come on, they’re children, man. They’re kids. We adults have pressure to feel absolute about everything we say. The world’s not black and white. One of the things you learn growing older is the shades of gray and all the many different colors. That does not mean you can’t have judgment. Yes, you can still have judgment. Yes, you can still make an opinion, but let’s admit and consider that there are these different opinions and people see the same situation a different way. Consider that, then make your choice. And what do you get out of making choices? Based on your preferences, you get style. Kids can find their own individual style.

Matthew McConaughey with Levi and Vida in 2016.

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How do you talk to your kids about AI?

How sentient can AI be? We’ll see. But what I say — and I tell my kids this — is that the poetry of living is the context of situations. It’s about the place I am this morning, the place you are right now. Do you and I have the same conversation five hours from now? Do you and I have the same conversation after we just got back from a run? After we’ve had two beers? It’s always different. Did my dog pass this morning, or did I just wake up and have a great morning with my wife before we came out for breakfast? It matters. The intent matters. The context matters.

You’ve got a 10-year-old, a 13-year-old, and a 15-year-old. Do you still pick your kids up? Like physically?

Picked one up last night. They’re getting heavier and heavier. It’s more “Come on, wake up; I’ll walk you to the room.” Not so much carrying them anymore. And that happens quickly. You’ll look up one day, you’ll go in the bedroom, and you’re like, “Is there a stuffed animal down there?” And you’re like, “No, that’s still their legs. That’s how tall.” I don’t pick them up as much.

And just because I lied does not mean that I’m a liar.

You’re obviously known for your voice. When you read to your kids, do you do character voices?

Yeah, I do voices because it helps me stay up and keep energy up and keeps me on my toes! But sometimes, while reading of... I’ve been asked, “Papi, could you stop doing the voices?”

That’s happening to me right now.

Right! Yeah, I’ll say, look, that’s who the character is, and they’ll be like ... “No, no, no. I like it better when you just read it straight.” OK! It’s strange. Like “Cut the animation, Dad!” A straight line here.

How did this book come about? Was there a voice in your head that made you write it this way?

This was a lyric; it came to me in a dream as couplets. I woke up at 2:30 in the morning and wrote it all down, and I thought, in my mind, it was a Bob Dylan song! So I wrote it and sorta said in that style of Dylan. And it rhymed, and it had the little simple lilt. And then I was like, “Just because you’re wailing doesn’t mean that you’re a crier. And just because I lied does not mean that I’m a liar.” You know, like the way Dylan would sing it. That’s what it was. As soon as I found the beat and the hook of just because it just started coming out of me, and then I went back and looked at it, and I was like, “Oh, this looks like this could be useful for kids’ and adults’ lives.”

A form of maturity is how far forward can you project in your life. What race are you racing?

That’s not a bad Bob Dylan impression right there.

Well, I’m a song-and-dance man.

What do you think dads can get out of this book?

Listen, man, to all the fathers out there, I just want to say this: I know it’s hard. But we’ve got the most privileged job going. Let’s do our best.

Just Because is out now with booksellers everywhere. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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