Matthew McConaughey Opens Up About Fatherhood

Donna Freydkin

Matthew McConaughey makes no excuses for who he is, how he lives, or what he has. Which is not to say McConaughey is complacent. Quite the opposite. After roughly 30 years of ubiquity and fame, he’s still putting in the work necessary to be more than ubiquitous and famous — to be good.

When the pandemic hit, McConaughey hit back, releasing a series of folksy videos urging Texans to stay safe and began hosting bingo nights for socially distanced seniors over Zoom. He used his platform for good —just as he has for decades with his Just Keep Livin’ foundation and Meals on Wheels. And when Black Lives Matter protests broke out across the country in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, he did it again, appearing on NFL star Emmanuel Acho’s YouTube series “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” to ask how he could do better.

With other celebrities, the do-gooder bit feels obligatory. With McConaughey, it feels like it comes from a place of deep seeded generosity and joy. That’s because it does. He’s a happy family man looking to set an example for his three kids, Levi, 11, Vida, 10, and Livingston, 7. “Your mother and I worked hard for this, we earned this, and we’re going to take care of it,” he tells them. “We’re not going to apologize for what we have but we’re never going to flaunt what we have either.”

Has fame changed McConaughey? Of course it has. He’s not the dude who first drawled his way to fame in 1993’s Dazed and Confused. But rather than amplifying his faults, whatever they may be, it has multiplied his kindness and turned him into a uniquely American source of renewable energy. McConaughey is everyone’s neighbor. And that feels like a job he chose for himself. “Giving back is a selfish endeavor,” he says. “It’s selfless but it feels inherently good.” That’s a complex way of saying that he’s doing it — all of it — for the right reasons. And that makes Matthew McConaughey the coolest dad in America. 

Fatherly spoke to McConaughey about his family values. In classic McConaughey fashion, he had a lot to say. 

What are the values you want to instill in your children?

I want them to be autonomous, conscientious, and confident. I want them to be self-reliant. I want them to have respect for themselves and for others. If you can respect yourself, you can respect others. I want them to be able to trust themselves and therefore be able to trust us.

I was raised to ‘get relative’ pretty damn quickly, to go… ‘Relatively speaking, I’m doing good.’ Relatively speaking, we’re having a good pandemic. We have a house. Our pantry is full. Covid-19 is here, but we got relative to the facts. How do we decide we’re going to quarantine? We accept that we don’t have another choice and decide to make the best of it. We’re going to get to know ourselves better as a family. We’re going to work on our hobbies. We’re going to get to know our land. 

Attitude is also a thing. My mom always said that the best example you can give your kids is to show them how you love their mother. 

So many parents struggle with not giving kids too much of everything. How do you approach that issue? 

Oh, you’ll love this. This is one of the best quotes I’ve ever heard. My son was four years old. When we fly, we fly commercial. Sometimes we take a cab to the airport. For movies, the studio will fly us private. They pick you up in a limo. So my son had been on about six private flights and 30 commercial flights. When we’re going to do a private flight, I don’t tell him. We just pull up to the private flight. So this happens and he leans up and he says: ‘Oh yes, papa. I sure do love taking the black car to the little plane rather than the yellow car to the big one.’ 

We laughed our asses off. Then we were like, ‘Oh jeez, we gotta watch it.’. 

And it feels good to spoil kids. You’re the hero. 

It’s hard to fix something when it’s broken when you can just buy another one. We try to teach them not to do that. Let’s take some time and try to fix this thing. It’s going to be more work, but let’s try to fix it. 

How do you explain that concept to young kids, though? When they see how easy everything can be, and how fast they can get it. 

Here’s my favorite trait that I want to instill in my children. Understanding the value of delayed gratification. That’s it. That really seems to be the ticket. We talk to them about the sirs and the ma’ams. I tell them it’s out of respect for your elders. But on a selfish level, it means you’ll get more of what you want later in life. You’ll get more of what you want with good manners so it’s actually a very selfish thing that will pay off for you. Do your homework on Friday afternoon so you don’t have to be interrupted on Sunday afternoon when you have a friend over and we tell you you have to quit playing to do your homework.

It’s a very hard thing to teach them because kids are very much in the moment. When I won for the Oscar, they asked why I got that trophy. I said, do you remember 14 months ago when we were living in New Orleans and papa was skinny and you said my neck looked like a giraffe? The stuff I was doing, the work I was doing every day, a year and two months later, people said that was excellent work and 14 months later they gave me a trophy for what I did. And it clicked. You can invest today, do work today, and get rewarded for it tomorrow. Every day, what you do, who you are, how you treat others, you’re building your resume for life. 

Clearly, your life is centered around your kids. What’s the most rewarding part of fatherhood for you?

I’m now immortal. That’s the greatest thing about being a parent. Through your children, you’ve solidified the shadow you leave. Now you can never die. I always wanted to be a father. To me, it’s what was in my mind; that’s when a man has made it. It was the pinnacle, the ultimate achievement. Not just to have the baby, but to be a father and raise the child. 

Every day you’re reminded, they are what they are. All I can do is shepherd them and nudge them. I can tell them not to touch fire but that doesn’t work as well as hey touch that shining ember on the stick. They need to fall out of that tree on their own from a height that won’t hurt them too bad. I want them to be able to negotiate life and conflict. I hope that they can find things to do in their life that are innately good at but also love to do and work hard to do.

Do you see yourself in them? 

We have kids ages 11, 10, and 7. They’re all very different from each other. At the same time, they’re definitely my kids. My wife has to remind me of that sometimes. They got that from you. Levi, when he’s on the phone, he paces, he walks. Kids pick up on behaviors.

And here we are, in the midst of this pandemic. You’ve been particularly out there, with your videos, which are great. But first, let’s talk about that Zoom bingo night with seniors. How did that happen?

It happened very easily actually. A retirement home reached out to see if I would come in person. It was a couple of weeks before Covid hit and I was busy and looking for a place to make time. All of a sudden Covid hit and we said, why don’t we do it virtually? We set it up and called in and they were ready to go. It was a hoot. 

A lot of stars, in their quest to connect with regular people during the pandemic, come off as out of touch and utterly disconnected. Yet you have really managed to strike a chord, with videos that are informative, funny, smart. 

There have been some good intentions and some people got hounded because their intentions were right, but their tone and timing were off. I think some people could do a better job of understanding the context. I’m trying to keep my pulse on what’s going on and where people’s heads and hearts. Where are we between chaos and order? Can we find some order in this chaos? What are the facts? What are things that are facts that need to be shared? Because there’s this distrust at the top. The science is confusing.

The stay-at-home deal was important and it became very clear that that was what we needed to do. But people weren’t doing it. This is real stuff. We’re not messing around here. We’ve been called to duty. The second one was, it’s a war and you’re not a coward if you stay home. You’re valiant. I tried to flip the script: Your greatest weapon is to stay at home. The latest one was the fallacy that this is a partisan political battle. Headlines made it out like if you want to work you’re for Trump and if you stay home and protect yourself you’re on the left. I just thought, ‘Don’t be hijacking that.’ I understand people needing to go back to work.

Then the damn mask got politicized. The masks seem to be the one truth so far, the most inarguable one. I haven’t heard of a downside yet. I’ve been just riding the wave of what I think needs to be said. I’m not saying revelatory things. If someone hears it from me and changes their behavior in a good way, great. 

It makes it easier to explain the situation to your own kids, too. If they see you doing it, they get it. 

I think our children understand it pretty well. We’re realistic with them. As parents, we’re very much about opening their eyes and looking reality in the face, no matter how hard it is. I think our children, most children, can handle reality.

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