Full Show Notes
At first, Neal Thompson was glad that his young boys had found an activity that was getting them outside, keeping them active, and helping them gain acceptance from peers. But, as the kids grew older, skateboarding started to show it’s dark side: vandalism, drugs, alcohol, skipping classes, lying, and more.
He wrote about the whole incredible story in his new book Kickflip Boys: A Memoir of Freedom, Rebellion, and the Chaos of Fatherhood. I spoke with him about it this week on the podcast.
Through all of the drama, Neal learned some valuable lessons about how to deal with rebellious teenagers in a positive way. In the end, one of the big things he wishes he would have been able to do was to relax and stop worrying so much about the future.
The thing that kept his family strong through it all? Neal says it was the ability to say “I love you” to his kids consistently and really mean it.
He also shares some strategies that he uncovered by watching his wife and her natural way of getting the kids to open up. Neal noticed that she was often more effective than he was at this even though he spent a lot of time with the boys skateboarding. We explore her communication style in-dept during this episode.
Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview
1. Make the Talking the Secondary Objective:Neal told me that he and his wife had very different styles with their kids and one thing the he noticed she was good at is having a second activity going during talks to take the pressure off. She would talk to the teens while they were cooking together, going for a walk, or driving somewhere. Neal says he witnessed the effectiveness of this tactic first-hand with his wife and recommends other parents try it as well. I definitely agree that focusing your teen’s attention on a secondary task will bring down barriers and allow you to talk more openly. What are some activities you could do with your teenager while talking? Brainstorm a list and circle one new one you want to try this week. Some ideas are bowling, basketball, ping-pong, racquetball, tennis, jogging, walking, gardening, painting, sanding, cleaning, raking, eating, cooking, or driving. Watching something on TV or going to a concert would be great bonding events but not so great for having a conversation.
Complete Interview Transcript
Andy: So, the book is Kickflip Boys. It’s really fun. And it’s an interesting way to structure a book, because it’s sort of from your perspective as a father, kind of like this coming of age story of your two boys, Shawn and Leo, and we watch you become a skate dad as the story unfolds and get caught up in this world of skateboarding and see all this beauty that’s there. And then start to see the consequences as your kids get older and get into their teenage years of all this skateboard community that they’ve been in and all the rebellion and stuff that’s associated with that community.
Andy: So I thought it was really interesting to see your perspective on this, because you nailed a lot of interesting things that in our research we actually talk about. And so one of them was you wrote a number of places in the book that your wife had this way of getting your kids to open up when they maybe would open up to you because you maybe would push a little too much or she had some sort of magical gift. Can you talk about that a little bit? And what you think it is about her that is able to do that?
Neal: Yeah, yeah. No, it’s an interesting piece that you picked up on there, because it was one that, as our kids are getting older, I observed my wife’s … The difference between her relationship with them and mine, which makes sense. She’s mom, I’m the dad. By traditional sort of roles, societal roles, I’m supposed to be the bad guy and she’s supposed to be the nurturing mom, right? Which is a little gender specific there. But in our case it was not exactly like that. I mean, we were equal partners, but we had our own styles with our kids.
Neal: And as you pointed out, my style was to be involved with their skateboarding and to support it. And I loved it. I was around it all the time. I thought it was fantastic for them. I was super intrigued by the culture and their group of friends. My wife appreciated it too. She didn’t go to the skate parks as much as me. She did in the beginning when they were younger. And then as they got older and it got a little bit so like boys centric, she kept her distance a little bit. But to your question about her communication style I guess. Her way of speaking with the boys and dealing with some of the rebellion that came later, she was just much more patient I mean, in a nutshell. She would not freak out like I would. She wouldn’t yell and scream like I sometimes would and instantly to go to this place of like stress and sometimes anger and shouting. She had a calmer demeanor.
Neal: And I think the result of that was that the boys felt able to talk to her sometimes more than they did with me. And one example of that is just driving around. I think she learned early on that if they’re in the car, it’s like this bubble, it’s this safe space, right? And they don’t know that she’s looking for information from them. It’s just a place where they can feel a little bit more relaxed and able to open up. So I think the combination of finding the right tone and the right place and the right space for them to open up to her, made a big difference for her versus forcing it, you know?
Andy: There’s also something about the car where it’s like you’re in the car to do something else. You have another objective, and the conversation is secondary, because a big part of our research is alcohol use and trying to reduce alcohol use among teenagers.
Neal: That was our job too.
Andy: Right. I mean, as any parent knows, it’s not easy. And what we have found a lot is we’re trying to reduce reactants before we give students messages about alcohol and feedback about alcohol is so huge. Because the kind of kids that are drinking a lot are the kind of kids who are really independent and free-willed kind of autonomous kids. And so they have this really strong reactions to being told what to do, you know? So what we found is, if we almost disguise what the objective is a little bit-
Andy: … and make them think like, “Okay, yeah. Well, we just finished the alcohol part and now we can just complete this little survey.” And then actually that has some feedback in it that is designed. If we can disguise the objective of it a little bit, we find it has a lot bigger results on their behavior. They’re more accepting of it. And I wonder if that’s the same thing that your wife is doing. I think you mentioned in your book the difference between face-to-face conversations, and she was better at getting them into situations like on a walk or in the car like you say, where it feels like we’re together doing something.
Neal: Yeah, I think the walks were great for her and the boys. Because like you said, the objective was the walk, right? And then the conversation was sort of secondary. So it wasn’t like that typical parent approach where you tell your kid, “Okay, sit down, we’re going to have a talk now.” And immediately their resistance is up and their radar is up and their rebellion is tweaked. But if it’s a calmer setting where you’re just walking, doing something else, and the conversation is like a byproduct of that, then they don’t feel like they’re have a camera pointed at their face and somebody is grilling them or, you know.
Andy: Okay. But speaking of cameras pointing at faces, another really interesting topic that emerged from this book was actually a lot about kind of the internet and about growing up in this age of iPhones and YouTube. And actually you right here on page 86 of your book, the problem was this, “As a dad in the age of iPhones and YouTube, I had access to moments that my parents never witnessed. I saw them in the wild in action, and I was unwilling to look the other way.” And it sort of happens a few times throughout the book that you find information by looking through your kids’ cell phones or kind of stealing their passwords and doing some stealthy internet slew thing.
Andy: So that I think is such an interesting issue right now. And I think that all parents of teenagers are wondering about that. Looking back, do you think that it was a good idea to do that and to keep such close tabs on what they were doing online and on their cell phones? Or do you think that it backfired a little bit?
Neal: I found it to be almost necessary.
Neal: And I know a lot of parents would disagree with that and think, “You’re spying, you need to get in their privacy.” But I felt like it was a tool that I needed to use, but to use carefully, right? I could have easily exploited that-
Andy: Abused it.
Neal: … and some parents would look at what we did or what I did especially, and think, “You definitely crossed a line.” Like using their pass codes to get into their cell phones. Some parents would think, “No, that’s their space. That’s their privacy. You’re going to violate that trust with your kids if you start bending the rules like that.” And I felt that tension constantly around how far I felt comfortable going in spying on them basically.
Andy: Yeah, right. To a certain extent.
Neal: But in our case there were times when things had gotten to sort of this risky enough place where they were either drinking too much or they were out too late or their friends were getting deeper into drugs, or we just didn’t know where they were. And I felt like I had to use every tool in my arsenal to keep tabs on them and keep him safe, which was the end result really.
Neal: But yeah, the risks there were running the risk of doing some damage to our relationship and the trust we had with each other. And there were definitely times where they flat out said, “You’re violating my privacy. This is my space. Or this is my room, or this is my whatever.” But, so I think those are interesting challenges for parents. Because they can see their kids out in the wild like we did if their kids have YouTube channels or Instagram pages or whatever. It’s just all there.
Andy: It’s a whole different world and the parents are still figuring out how to do deal with it I think. I think it’s fascinating, because now the book is out.
Andy: So all of the spying that you did now is public knowledge. And I assume that you’ve run this manuscript by your family before publishing it.
Neal: Oh yeah.
Andy: So I’m interested in that. Was there a lot of things in here that your kids didn’t know yet? I mean, definitely some of that kind of stuff, like the extent to which you were looking through their text messages sometimes when things seemed fishy. Because one thing I would say about this book and I noticed a number of the comments say this also is, it’s brutally honest, it’s like no holds barred. It feels like a really raw account. And so I’m curious from your perspective now, having gone through this full disclosure process with your family, what your kids think about all of that spying?
Neal: Yeah. Well, I mean, that was a really interesting part of the process for me, and challenging, as you can imagine.
Andy: Sure. Yeah, yeah.
Neal: And I’ll say one point about the book. I really wanted it to be … I wanted to come clean about everything. About how vulnerable I felt. I wanted to come clean about the mistakes I made, so that other parents could read it and A, feel like, “Hey, maybe we’re not so bad,” and B, feel like they’re not alone.
Andy: Someone else has gone through this stuff too.
Neal: Exactly, right. And I’ve heard from early readers and other parents who I shared the books with, who said exactly that same thing. They identified with so many of the situations that we went through. So, I hope it’s helpful to other parents. But the process of talking with my kids about it. And I just wrote a story about this process of negotiating with family, around what you say, what you don’t say. So early on the book was not necessarily designed to be this personal.
Neal: And I started it years ago before we got into the high school years. So I thought it’ll be about skate culture. It’ll be about-
Andy: Oh, wow.
Neal: … the early days of my kids’ skating experience and some of our fun times together. And then,-
Andy: I see.
Neal: … as I was writing it little by little, we got into the sort of the darker aspect of skateboarding. And we got into the darker aspects of the teen years in high school and drug use. And so the book just sort of kept going in that direction. So, when it finally got to a point where I had a manuscript, I felt like I had to share it with the boys and let them know, here’s where this thing is headed, what you think? And along the way I would ask them questions, I would try and get them engaged in the book like, “Hey, do you remember that time we did this?” And a lot of those times they would say, “Oh, you’re not going to write about that, are you?” So they slowly realize where I was headed with this.
Andy: Ah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Neal: And they kept their distance at times, until I almost at times had to force them and say, “Now, I really need you to read this, because I want you to know what’s coming. And I want you to have a say in what stays and what goes.” So there were a lot of kind of brutal episodes of me sharing manuscript pages with them and then them sending it back, and it was just like pages X-ed out [crosstalk]-
Andy: You can’t say that. What, are you crazy?
Neal: Exactly, yeah. And I think that was necessary for the book. I had to let them know what was coming. I had to give them the opportunity to say no. But I also, I wanted it to be like you said, honest and raw. So I also wanted to convince them that it was okay to keep a lot of it in for the benefit of the book, for the benefit of other parents who are reading it. And almost this was tricky too. I tried to convince them, “At some point you look back on this and hopefully understand what I was trying to do and be glad that you went along for the ride. Because then you’ll be able to share it with your kids, because then it’s like the real story and we didn’t whitewash it.”
Andy: Yeah, right. I hadn’t thought about this before, but diving into this topic, it makes me wonder, isn’t this kind of like what we do every day with our social media feeds? We post private moments from our friends and our family. And we just publicize them and put them online for everybody without necessarily consulting the person first, like you did with this manuscript about, “Is it okay if we put this all out there?” And so it’s interesting to hear from you the intense process that you went through, which it makes sense that you did go through. But then to also think that, well, we kind of do this to our kids from the day they’re born and post pictures of their embarrassing moments all over the internet or whatever. And I wonder to what extent should we be having more of that kind of a conversation? Or is there an adapted version of that conversation that we can have with our family that’s like the boundaries of what’s okay? From this private world that we have together in this home, what’s okay and what’s not okay to publicize?
Neal: I think that’s a really good question. Especially as it’s easier and easier just to basically live stream your life if you chose to. You can have it all out there.
Andy: Yeah, right.
Neal: And there are different versions of it too. There are the kids posting their stuff over here, parents posting their stuff over here. And I think often, and I know this is the case with our family, we’re not talking about what we’re saying about each other on the internet basically. We’re not, as parents we’re not saying, “Hey, I’d really like to post all of your graduation photos or your [crosstalk 00:13:38] photos-
Andy: Would it be okay with you?
Neal: Would it be okay, right? Yeah, and I think we’ve all gotten sort of numb to the idea that our lives are there for sharing with the world. But different kids have different views of that and different comfort levels and parents do too. So I think yeah, talking more about that is a great idea.
Andy: It’s kind of a cool concept.
Neal: And setting the boundaries like you said, “Here are the things I’m comfortable with. I don’t mind you sharing this, but I would prefer if you didn’t do this, this or this.” And we’ve all seen those shots, Facebook or Instagram or wherever else where you think, “That’s a little too personal, that’s a little TMI.” I don’t know, shots of somebody in a hospital where dad’s worried about his dog. I cringe at some of those thinking, “What if something bad happened and you’re basically sort of live streaming this terrible family event?”
Andy: Or there’s a point in your book actually. I don’t know if I could find it right off the bat. But where you uncover your son Leo’s secret Twitter account, and you start going through all these things that he’s tweeted over the years that he’s had this thing that was kind of this whole secret channel of communication that you just sort of discovered. And it was like that reverse almost of kind of him baring some laundry from the other perspective too.
Neal: Yeah, yeah. And it was fascinating to discover, right? To see this other version of my kid online and sort of funny and a smart ass and a little bit, confused isn’t the right word, but sort of expressing his teen-
Andy: Trying to figure it out.
Neal: Yeah, whatever angst and confusion. It was a fascinating thing to see.
Andy: Researchers have looked in vain to find these birth order effects, because when you ask parents and siblings to rate each other, there’s these consistent effects that the first one is more ambitious and more of like a schmoozer to adults. And then the younger one is more likely to be rebellious and less of a people pleaser or whatever. But when they actually look outside of the house, like at teachers’ assessments of the kids or at other people who don’t live in the house’s assessments of the kids, the effects disappear. And what they’ve kind of come to discover is that our behavior is so context dependent. Kids, they act one way in the family and then they act a different way out in the world. So yes, there might be birth order effects in the house, but when kids get out into the world, their behavior is modified in a different way.
Andy: And you kind of talk about this moment in the book of seeing your son in I think it’s his first job, he’s at a grocery store and you’ve just had kind of a rough morning with them or whatever, but he went off to work and now he’s bagging people’s groceries with a smile, interacting with them in a positive way that you wouldn’t have pictured him doing. It was interesting. It just made me think so much about that context dependency.
Neal: Well, and I think to that point, on the one hand we’re talking about how you’re able to see your kids in the world through social media. But you’re seeing just a slice of them, and it’s a very selective slice and maybe not the best representation of who they are. And then the rest of the time throughout living their life, they’re at school, they’re interacting with their friends, they’re out in the world and you’re not seeing those moments.
Neal: And so that scene that you described where I see my son actually working and talking to people, I think he had woke up with a hangover that morning and we had a rough night the night before, and then I see him and he’s just, he’s fine. And it’s one of those many reminders that they’re fine. They’re going to be okay. And I think one of the takeaways in the book is, for me was like, relax. I wish I had figured out a way to relax about them and their future along the much sooner instead of stressing all the time.
Andy: That’s so interesting that you say that, because I would think that a lot of parents would look at you and say, “You would on the surface seem like a pretty relaxed parent in terms of letting your kids do all this skateboarding and giving them a lot of freedoms,” that a lot of parents would say is too much responsibility. We’re here with …
About Neal Thompson
In addition to his new book, Kickflip Boys: A Memoir of Freedom, Rebellion, and the Chaos of Fatherhood, Neal has written four other books and blabbed about them on ESPN, the History Channel, PBS, C-Span, Fox, TNT, and NPR — plus a fun five minutes on The Daily Show.
As a journalist, over the years he’s written for Outside, Esquire, Backpacker, Men’s Health, Sports Illustrated, Seattle Met, the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. He spent a dozen years as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, St. Petersburg Times, Bergen Record, Roanoke Times, and Philadelphia Inquirer.
He taught creative non-fiction at the University of North Carolina’s Great Smokies Writing Program, and served on the board of Seattle Arts & Lectures. As a journalist and author, he’s mostly written about flawed and adventurous men – athletes and explorers, astronauts and bootleggers, warriors and risk-takers. And now: skateboarders.
Neal’s goal has been to tell inspiring stories that capture the aspirations and warts-and-all imperfections of those trying to live big lives, especially those who overcome hurdles, hardships, and setbacks.