Recently, Dax Shepard was invited to ask President Barack Obama a question on his podcast, Renegades. Shepard, himself the creator and host of the long-form Armchair Expert podcast, was stoked. His actual query really makes no difference, because here’s the answer he got from #44: “Dax, I’ve got to give a shoutout to your wife because I love The Good Place. We all enjoy that show a lot. Excellent.”
Shepard’s response: Resigned, bemused acceptance. It’s pretty much par for the course when you’re married to America’s national parenting treasure and voice of Anna: Kristen Bell. “In keeping with the pattern of Kristen and I’s life — I had 16 years of sobriety, but she wrote a beautiful note on Instagram congratulating me and her congratulation of me became a news story everywhere. And I was like, ‘Look at you girl, you’re getting all the credit for my 16 years of sobriety,'” he tells Fatherly.
“And then once again I was told, ‘Hey, if you ask the president a question, he’s going to read it on his thing.’ I was so excited. This was amazing. Maybe this is going to open up the door to him being on Armchair, blah, blah, blah. I’m writing this beautiful story about my life in my head because he knows who I am. And immediately he talks about Kristen and I think forgot the question I asked and answered maybe a slightly different question. This is perfect. I love it. This is exactly how it should be.”
Shepard, who has two daughters with Bell, recently launched a subreddit of his podcast, as it were, called Nurture vs. Nurture with Dr. Wendy Mogel, a practicing clinical psychologist in Los Angeles and the author of multiple parenting books, including The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. Shepard and Mogel spoke to Fatherly about living in the moment, letting kids know about consequences, and never making empty threats.
So nice to meet you, Wendy, and great to see you again, Dax. My child is perfect, so I have no questions for you. But on behalf of other parents, what are the most common mistakes you seem them making?
Mogel: The number one mistake for all parents of kids of every age, and that certainly applies to the little ones, is both a combination of making empty threats and not doing things on the children’s actual timetable. So toddlers are wildly enchanted with every visual, every texture, every new creature, every animal, every person who comes into their line of sight. Parents need to give them enough time to both processes and enjoy all the things that are happening to all five of their senses. Parents also rush them around so they get over-tired and irritable. And then parents echo back the irritability and everybody kind of melts into a little puddle.
Dax, having talked to you and Kristen in the past, I know you’re the, shall we say, tougher parent. How do you follow through on threats?
Shepard: Unfortunately I have taken on the role of the threat keeper, which is not the fun role to have. I would argue, though, that I get bothered less. My mother was real big on the fact that you can ask me once. And then when I tell you the answer, that that’ll be the answer, and I will not respond again. And I inherited that technique where: I’ve told you what the answer is and we don’t beg in this family.
You have to put some time into what the consequences are going to be. You’re not going to take away their TV for a week. That doesn’t mean anything to them right now. I think you need to have in your quiver realistic things — so you can uphold threats that will actually work and that aren’t going to punish you. Taking away their TV for a week — that’s punishment for you. That means you’re not going to have any time for yourself. So congratulations.
So how do you come up with realistic consequences?
Shepard: I try to make them as immediate as possible. I know what’s coming, I’m not an idiot, it’s bedtime, so it’s going to be impossible to get them to brush their teeth. And I know that. So I start with, ‘If you guys want to watch TV for five more minutes, I want your teeth brushed.’ I just try to make it as immediate in their life as possible, and not global.
Mogler: I want to say something about the concept of time. Let’s say a five-year-old, they’ve only had five summers. We’ve had a lot more summers. So when you say things like I’m going to take it away for a week, it sounds to them like I’m taking it away forever or for a couple of years. And so it makes sense to us and it’s logical if not impractical, but for children, it doesn’t have impact.
Wendy, what about manners? Kids are brutally honest, with emphasis on brutal.
Mogel: I use the term ‘butler lies’ because we definitely want to teach kids about white lies and protecting people’s feelings, and empathy. And we don’t want to lean too hard in on self-expression because then they won’t have any friends and their teachers won’t like them in school and they won’t get hired for a job, no matter how talented they are. So this is code-switching and they need to do it all the time.
When you talk to people, imagine hearing something like that, then you’ve got to just ask yourself, is this something that would make you sad or happy? And is it worth making them sad? If you tell someone they’re short, you’re free to do it. But imagine that it’s probably going to make them feel sad.
Shepard: I had one of my top three happiest moments that I’ve had as a parent last week. We were in Hawaii and we were at a restaurant and someone was playing music, really beautiful, beautiful music. And my daughter wanted to go look and see the musician. So she goes downstairs, she comes back up and I say, ‘What did he look like?’ And she goes, ‘I don’t want to describe what he looks like. I think he’s a really nice person.’ I could tell, she knew it would be mean to describe how this person looked. She just said, ‘I choose not to describe him. I just think he was a nice person.’ I was like, ‘She’s so much better than I am.’
Mogel: She has already learned what we’re all supposed to be learning now, which is you do not mention race unless it’s relevant and important in the information you’re communicating. It’s the kind of education we’re getting along with our children right now. So I don’t know what she saw or what she thought, but she knew it was not relevant to the quality of his music. And she was educating you, Dax, about a certain kind of respectful discernment and what’s important and what’s not important. And to her, the quality and the craftsmanship and the beauty of the music was what she went by.
Dax, is Wendy your go-to child whisperer now? Do you hit her up for parenting advice on the regular?
Dax: It’s way worse than that. It’s way more Machiavellian. So if I hear an episode of her podcast that I think supports an argument we’ve been having, I recommend Kristen listen to that episode. And then the ones where Kristen’s point of view is confirmed, I don’t advise her to listen to those ones. I always hear Wendy’s voice in my head when I’m starting to spin out that something is becoming an issue that I need to confront and solve in the next week.
So on the same trip, there were two days where my daughter was not social. Didn’t want to play with all the kids. There were nine other kids there. All the other kids seem to be playing just fine. And she just wanted to be with me and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, is she having a problem being social?’ That’s when Wendy’s voice comes in. It’s like, who gives a shit — enjoy this day. She wants to be with you instead of the other kids. Because there’s going to be mostly days where she doesn’t want to be with me and I’m not gonna give it any energy. Like it is what it is today. And I haven’t told her, I don’t love her. So we’re good.
Mogel: We’re sizing up every moment. There are children she could be playing with and getting social. And here she was with her dad on a tropical island. And what a treat to spend time with him when he was not filled with the kind of obligations or distractions or preoccupations that he has at home, for example. So how astute of her to figure out: I get to spend a day with this guy. I could be with those kids at any time.
Dax: Yeah, we had no mom too. I wasn’t even competing with Kristen.