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Dax Shepard Says Dad Fantasies Are Always About Breaking Rules

The host of 'Top Gear America,' talks about sobriety, couples' fights, and why you let your kid decide which Star Wars movie to start with.

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It’s a complex, circular argument without a definitive resolution, a topic hotly debated with Reddit threads aplenty. And eventually, if you’re a parent, you too will have “the talk” with your kids, that agonizing moment in which you determine what’s the best order for watching the Star Wars movies. It even happens to celebrities, those lofty humans who can presumably simply call George Lucas or J.J. Abrams for their expert guidance. Such was the case with Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell’s daughter Lincoln, 7.

“She of course wanted to start at one, and my sister and I were trying to explain to her that one is four, which is confusing,” says Shepard. “We make our third or fourth argument of why she should start at the fourth one and she gets upset and she goes into her room and then I’m sitting there. I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re just blatantly didn’t listen to her. She was as clear as day. She wants to watch one and who cares what orders she watches.’”

Her sister Delta, 6, hasn’t discovered the galaxy far, far away yet, but Shepard did learn that he’d just spent a solid chunk of time pointlessly arguing with a second-grader.

“So I go into the bedroom and I go, ‘I’m really sorry. We weren’t listening to you at all. You know, you were saying very clearly what your choice was and we were ignoring it and kept trying to sell you on it. And I apologize,’” he says. “I’m keen on admitting when I’ve blown it because I blow it pretty often.”

Shepard, who’s keenly self-aware and disarmingly candid, talks to Fatherly about pandemic parenting, surviving quarantine, and his new show Top Gear America, now streaming on the MotorTrend app.

You’re so forthcoming about being a flawed human being, which is refreshing and very welcome. How do you discuss life’s tougher issues with your kids? 

It’s not hard for me, for better or worse. I don’t love introducing some of the global concerns that can feel probably quite overwhelming or fatalistic and my wife and I differ on that. So she’s more comfortable with doing that. I’m not as comfortable. In fact, that was the only thing my mother ever kept from me. I was allowed to see nudity. But she wouldn’t let me watch this movie about a nuclear holocaust. And she said that’s not something for you to be worrying about.

I don’t mind talking about sex. I don’t mind telling them that people molest people on planet earth. I don’t mind having those conversations. They’re generally bored by them: ‘Oh, here we go. We’re going to get this awkward conversation.’ I can just see after like a minute of it. They’re over it.

How do you broach your sobriety with your daughters? 

They know that I can’t drink because I’m an alcoholic and my dad was an alcoholic. My uncles. Plus I had trauma and trauma plus genetics is usually pretty predictable. You’ll be an addict and I am an addict. You notice the way I eat nicotine mints. Well, just imagine me drinking. When I drank, I disappeared for a few days. So this is why I can’t do it, but other people can.

I’ve heard people say they have a hard time saying that to their children, but I really can’t relate to that one. I guess I don’t understand what the pro argument for keeping that from them is — also, I’m not ashamed. I’m an alcoholic. As I said, I have a genetic predisposition. I had a lot of childhood trauma and I’m an alcoholic. That’s what you get. You mix those two things together and you get an alcoholic. Mom has depression. There’s no shame there. You’re going to have stuff. We all have stuff. I don’t know who we’re acting like we don’t have stuff for.

You and Kristen are one of the few quote-unquote famous couples who are honest about the fact that marriage is a challenge instead of this gauzy, dreamy Instagram stream.

We both feel a responsibility to say, you know, this marriage looks like a fairytale, but it’s not. And having kids could look like a fairytale. It’s not. They’re both hugely rewarding. We’re both advocates of both those things, but with all the caveats and warnings that anything that has a huge reward is an enormous amount of work. And it’s not always pleasant.

She told me in an earlier interview that when you two argue, you reenact the argument so you can resolve it in front of your kids and they can learn to problem-solve.

It’s painfully awkward for everyone, but we have committed to it. We get into some argument, we resolve it in our bedroom, and then we pretty much immediately come out. There’s rarely a day in between. I do it with them.

How has pandemic parenting worked out for you? It’s crazy, all this togetherness. 

The quarantine has been great. I’ve had more time with them this year than I probably did in the previous three. And also it’s terrible. And I can’t wait to get my car to go to the store. It feels like spring break when I leave the house. So all those things I think are true.

Top Gear America is peak dad. Guys doing cool stuff in cars. 

There’s a wish-fulfillment aspect of it — just that we’re outside. We’re driving in the country where we’re clearly traveling. So just the freedom that you can witness. It’s a total dad fantasy because you get to drive the cars however you want. In fact, the more rules you break, the happier your employer is, and you never have to deal with the damage. As they say, it’s best not to own a boat, but to have a friend with a boat. So it’s kind of similar.

Your podcast, Armchair Expert, must be your mental escape hatch after a year of being at home. 

I would fear for my own and my family’s safety had I not had them to lean on. For an approval junkie who loves to meet new people — it was probably the biggest blessing for me in quarantine to have those little reprieves from talking to a six and a seven-year-old all day long.

Was Hillary Clinton as awesome as you’d imagined when you had her on? 

She was in the middle of a cleaning spree that had started in her basement and was moving up each floor. And I think when we started talking, she was finally in the attic. Just to know that Hillary Clinton was obsessively cleaning her house to deal with the anxiety of quarantine was oddly comforting and made her very human. And the fact that Bill still has a huge collection of DVDs and VHS tapes, which I found to be really amusing and very on-brand for dads in general. I refuse to let my DVD collection go.

Do you still have DVDs? Even I let that go. 

My father, when he died, had boxes of laserdiscs. I don’t know if you remember those, but they’re so enormous. You can’t buy a laserdisc player. And the absurdity of it was apparent when I looked at him, but it’s less apparent when I look at myself.

We all, as parents, have some fantasy that one day they’re going to become interested in us. I doubt this will happen, but I have this fantasy that they’ll go through my CDs, that they’ll get into ‘70s rock music, and they’ll be impressed. Or one day they’ll read my journals with great interest, but I doubt any of that will really happen.

And then you have Hello Bello, which, it must be said, I actually use on myself and really like. 

We try to be really mindful and, and only release stuff that we actually use ourselves. All the praise goes to Kristen on that. She is strict about ingredients and about how to be best for the environment. She drives that ship and she does a great job at it. I care about price and not alienating people.