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Mike & Mel: Father-Son 'Amazing Race' Duo

Screenwriter Mike White and his father, gay rights activist Mel White, recently danced, ran and bobsledded around the globe as part of The Amazing Race. The duo talks about their relationship and reality-TV adventures.


Other segments from the episode on April 7, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 7, 2009: Interview with Mel White and Mike White; Interview with Richard Weissbourd.


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Mike & Mel: Father-Son 'Amazing Race' Duo


This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Boy, was I surprised when I found out that
two people who I’ve interviewed, Mike White, who wrote the movie, “School of
Rock,” and his father, Mel White, a Christian gay activist, were contestants on
the reality show “The Amazing Race.”

(Soundbite of TV show, “The Amazing Race”)

Unidentified Man: Southern California, 0700 hours. The dawn of a new adventure.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: From this western coast of America, 11 teams will embark on a
race around the world for $1 million.

GROSS: So at each destination in this race around the world, the teams are
required to perform physical feats ranging from paragliding to building a stone

The travel itself is an endurance test and a test of wits. So after Mike and
Mel White were eliminated, we invited them to talk about their adventures and
about their father-son relationship.

As we’ll hear later, when Mike was growing up, Mel attempted to overcome his
homosexual feelings, trying every therapy available, and he also ghost wrote
book by Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Billy Graham.

Now Mel is a retired minister in the Metropolitan Community Church, which has a
large gay congregation, and he’s the co-founder of the gay activist group

Mike White wrote the film “Chuck & Buck,” “Orange County,” “School of Rock” and
wrote and director “Year of the Dog.” He was also a writer on the TV series
“Freaks and Geeks.”

Mel White, Mike White, welcome to FRESH AIR. I still can’t believe you did “The
Amazing Race.”

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I mean, I have to say, of the reality shows, this one’s kind of like -
if the Myth of Sisyphus was made into a reality show, this would be it, because
you have to do these back-breaking things like carrying a traditional cheese
rack up a slippery hill and then carrying 200 pounds of cheese wheels down the
slippery hill.

I know like on the first thing, the cheese-wheel thing, Mel White, you said you
had like a groin muscle injury. So what kind of injuries did you both sustain
doing this?

Mr. MIKE WHITE (Writer): (Unintelligible) more than that, dad. Tell them. I
mean he injured himself on the starting line.

Mr. MEL WHITE (Minister): You know, they lined us up and said, ready, get set,
go, and I did what a young person does. I took a big stride and I heard it pop.
And so I limped all the rest of the way to our packs, got in the car, knew
something was wrong and really discovered how wrong it was on Cheese Hill.

GROSS: Gosh, I would’ve just given up, honestly.

Mr. MEL WHITE: Oh, you can’t give up…

Mr. MIKE WHITE: Well, there’s so much. You have no idea. You have to fill out
so much paperwork, and there’s so much of a build-up to actually leaving that
by the time you’re on the race, you don’t want to go because it would be the
ultimate anti-climax.

So we were going to do everything we could just to stay in it as long as we

GROSS: What kind of paperwork do you have to fill out? I’m thinking, like,
there must be so many – go ahead.

Mr. MEL WHITE: No, they tested us psychologically and physically, and I flunked
the MMPI.

GROSS: Oh, that’s the personality index test?

Mr. MEL WHITE: Right, Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, and the
psychiatrist came in, and Michael was trying to stifle laughter, and she said
you are the highest on the paranoia scale we’ve ever had.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, boy, you have reason to score high on the paranoia scale. I mean,
you have to travel with bodyguards sometimes because you go to Christian
churches, to fundamentalist churches and universities, and try to convince them
that they should accept homosexuality as a normal part of life and stop working
against it. So you have reason to be paranoid.

Mr. MEL WHITE: Well, that’s why when the psychiatrist started going through the
questions, and I started answering them, I knew that that test was not for an

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Really. Well, in some ways reality shows are designed to bring out the
worst in people because you have to be brutally competitive, incredibly
aggressive, and honest in the cruelest sense. Like people are often encouraged
to really say what they’re feeling and not put any kind of politeness around
it, which ends up sounding just like cruelty.

So did you ever feel like you risked falling into that kind of behavior?

Mr. MEL WHITE: Michael said from the beginning, dad, we’re going to do this for
fun, and I don’t want you to go aggro on me. I had to look it up. Aggravated.
Don’t get aggravated. And now and then he’d have to remind me that we’re in it
for the fun of it. But we never came close to having a fight. It was just too
much fun to fight.

GROSS: One of the things that surprised me, watching you, Mike, was that like
in movies - the first time I saw you in a film was in your movie “Chuck &
Buck,” in which you’re this kind of obsessive, like, nerdy, backwards character
who’s never really emotionally grown up.

And you know, the characters that you play are usually not exactly known for
their, like, strength and physical prowess. But like, you know, you take off
your shirt in this. You’ve got real muscles. Like, you are really physically
fit, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEL WHITE: I told you, Michael.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MIKE WHITE: Thank you, dad. I never thought I’d get a compliment on my
musculature from Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That’s right, and as your father just pointed out, you had to like run
in your underwear for one piece, for one of parts of the series.

Mr. MIKE WHITE: I think…

GROSS: With heavy boots on, I might add.

Mr. MIKE WHITE: I don’t know what to say. I’m just blushing. I have no comment.
I have no thought.

Mr. MEL WHITE: Well, go ahead and blush.

GROSS: Well Mel, I’m wondering what it was like for you. I mean, like you are
68. You’re probably among the oldest contestants that they’ve had on, and to go
through this kind of incredibly physical experience, it’s strenuous for the
most physically fit person, for the youngest, most physically fit person. Were
there parts where you thought, like, maybe this wasn’t the smartest idea?

Mr. MEL WHITE: No, I’m waiting for you to say something about my musculature.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You look very fit.

Mr. MIKE WHITE: You did great, dad. You did great.

Mr. MEL WHITE: Yeah, I got a muscle somewhere. I just haven’t seen it lately.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEL WHITE: I never felt really to the place we would give up, but when were
considering being eliminated on that last run, I had to remind Michael to look

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So what was it like to watch yourselves do all the, you know, physical
feats that you had to do – paragliding and…

Mr. MEL WHITE: Terrible, terrible, terrible. I didn’t know my wrinkles had
wrinklettes flopping in the breeze. I mean, I look as old as, you know, as
Satan. God, I was so depressed after I saw the first one. I’m not that old.
There’s some way they fixed that up on the camera - they’ve got wrinkle-adder
or something.

Mr. MIKE WHITE: Yeah, and I’m not that pale.

Mr. MEL WHITE: And you’re not that pale, that’s right. Not that muscular

Mr. MIKE WHITE: Oh, dad. But no, I mean, I would get stressed before every
episode just, you know, because you don’t know what they’re going to – you see
it the same time America sees it. So I’m not used to that, and you know, you
just, you know, you become self-conscious.

You know, it’s like that part of it was not the appeal for me, as much as I
guess I’ve chosen an exhibitionist line of work, and to go on a reality show
you’ve got to be some sort of exhibitionist to want to do it.

But that part of it is really not the pleasure. The pleasures were actually the
doing of it, and then the unfolding of the show was kind of met with a little
bit of dread for me.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guests are Mike White and Mel White, and
they were just father-son contestants on the reality show, “The Amazing Race.”

And they both have really interesting backgrounds. Mike is a screenwriter and
director. He wrote the screenplays for “School of Rock,” “Orange County,” “The
Good Girl,” “Chuck & Buck,” and he wrote and directed “Year of the Dog.” He’s
also appeared in a bunch of things, including a starring role in “Chuck &

Mel White is a gay activist, co-founder of the gay rights group Soulforce. He’s
a minister in the Metropolitan Community Church, which ministers to lesbian,
bisexual, gay and transgender people.

But before he came out, he was, you know, a Christian evangelical who was very
close to a lot of the leadership, and he ghost wrote books for Jerry Falwell,
Pat Robertson and Billy Graham.

Now, I have interviewed you both separately but never together. So there’s so
much I want to talk to you both about, about being, you know, a family.

Mel White, let me start with a question for you. Now, you were closeted when
you wrote the books for Falwell, Robertson and Graham, and you know, earlier in
your life you had tried therapies to overcome your homosexuality, including
shock treatment and exorcism.

Just to give us a sense of what you had to go through before just accepting the
fact that you were gay, what was the exorcism like?

Mr. MEL WHITE: There was a Protestant charismatic group that just put their
hands on me and prayed and prayed and prayed until I about went to sleep,
hoping that the demon of homosexuality would be exorcised.

But I went to a Catholic monastery that was known for its exorcisms, and when
the abbot said what demon do you want to have exorcised, I said homosexuality,
and after a long pause he said we can’t help you here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEL WHITE: I’ve always been grateful for that kind of honesty.

GROSS: What was that supposed to mean, do you think, from their point of view?

Mr. MEL WHITE: Yeah, it just meant that without gays there wouldn’t be a
Catholic church, I mean carrying those bishops, priests, and they know that gay
men have served the church faithfully and with integrity for centuries, and I
think they don’t want to toss out that demon because that demon works for the

GROSS: Maybe that’s what they meant. Maybe they just meant that it just hasn’t,
exorcisms haven’t worked in this area.

Mr. MEL WHITE: Yeah. Anyway, it was really interesting to go through this. The
first problem for me was not recognizing there was such a thing as gay or
homosexual. For me, I was brought up thinking that that’s both a sickness and a
sin, a sickness that needs to be cured and sin that needs to be forgiven.

So I said to Lila, right at the beginning of our relationship…

GROSS: This is your wife?

Mr. MEL WHITE: Yeah. I said, you know, I’m struggling with same-sex attraction.
And she simply said, well, what do you want to do about it? And I said, I want
to be married. I want to have children. I want to have grandkids. You know, I
don’t want to eat quiche, you know, the whole thing of what it means to be a
man these days. And she said, well then, let’s work on it.

And so for the next 20 years, literally, we went to counselor after counselor,
spent probably at least $100,000 on Christian counselors who said if you’ll
just take more showers, colder showers, if you’ll just pray more, if you’ll
just learn more Bible verses, that that will take it away, and of course that
proved to be folly.

GROSS: Including shock therapy.

Mr. MEL WHITE: Yeah, that was interesting. It wasn’t the serious kind of shock
therapy that they take you into a room, and – they fixed all these electrodes
onto me and then showed me pictures of men and women, and when I saw a picture
of a woman, I could turn off the power myself, and when I saw a picture of a
man that was attractive to me, I had to turn up the power.

So it was I handling all of those choices, and of course I wanted desperately
to not have this feeling anymore. So I put my hair stand on end for a couple
times there.

GROSS: My guests are Christian gay activist Mel White and his son,
screenwriter, director and actor Mike White. We’ll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are father and son, Mel and Mike White. They were a team on
the CBS reality series “The Amazing Race” and were eliminated two Sundays ago.

Mike wrote the movies “School of Rock,” “Chuck & Buck,” and “Year of the Dog.”
His father, Mel, is a Christian gay activist. Before coming out, he ghost-wrote
books for several famous Christian leaders.

Mike, I assume this is when you were growing up that your father was ghost-
writing books for Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Billy Graham. Were they held up
as ideals to you, people to be emulated and followed?

Mr. MIKE WHITE: Not really. You know, I grew up going to a secular private
school. I did not go to religious schools growing up and had a lot of friends
that were outside of the church and outside of that, and my parents, while my
dad, you know, came from a very evangelical background, didn’t – that was not
the vibe around my house.

I mean, we had a lot of theological discussions over dinner, and those were
real and influenced me, but at the same time it was never – it didn’t have that
kind of sort of fire-and-brimstone vibe over at our house.

It was – my dad was, you know, and my mom are both kind of open-minded and
inclusive, and so some of the more kind of darker aspects to kind of that world
I don’t think were really present in our household.

GROSS: Mel White, how come you sent Mike to a secular school and not a
Christian school?

Mr. MEL WHITE: One thing, it’s kind of hard to me to clear up something, but my
agent was Swifty Lazar, and he sold me to Simon Schuster to write these guys’

And so many people picture me sitting at their table, creating all of their
anti-gay policies and so forth, whereas I just flew in, stayed time with them,
recorded these interviews and then wrote these biographies.

So I would take home a lot of disgust. I mean, when you get up close to Jerry
Falwell, you can’t help but like him, but you can’t help but be disgusted by
some of the things he’s saying, and I think the kids heard a lot of my reaction
to these guys that would not set them up as models at all.

GROSS: You know, but it’s interesting. Even when you came out and really were
openly angry with and critical about the leaders, the Christian Evangelical
leaders, you retained your faith and you became a minister in the Metropolitan
Community Church, which is, you know, basically a gay church.

So you never lost your faith, even though your life was no longer compatible
with the faith the way…

Mr. MEL WHITE: You know, I…

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.

Mr. MEL WHITE: I distinguish between spirituality and religion, and I really
gave up on religion and can hardly go to any of their churches or watch any of
their programs.

Fortunately, I go to First Christian in Lynchburg that’s totally accepting. We
had our first lesbian wedding there last week. So yeah, I was really afraid
that my kids would become like I was in terms of feeling aught about religion.

But at the same time, it was my faith that got me through this. They taught me
about a Jesus who loves anybody all the time, and I really believed in that and
that guy had a smiling face to me most of the time.

And so I don’t know how I would have made it through all this struggle without
thinking he, God – she - still believes in me and still has work for me to do
and is forgiving me even when I screw up.

So I think my feelings about Jesus and God were the most important feelings
that I had to help me survive those days.

GROSS: So you said you gave up on organized religion, but you’re kind of back
in the game. I mean, you’re a minister now. You have a church, it’s just a
different kind.

Mr. MEL WHITE: Yeah. I’m not pastoring now. I’m retired, and I work full-time
with Soulforce, trying to help churches overcome their misinformation.

Religion-based oppression is the problem for gay and lesbian, bisexual and
transgender people. It’s religion that keeps homophobia alive, and so I’m still

It’s very hard for me to participate in Soulforce actions now because we are
committed to nonviolence, and there are moments that I would really – I get so
angry that there’s not a nonviolent streak in me at that moment.

So I have to watch it. I’m really angry. I’ve received over 100,000 letters,
Terry, after “Stranger at the Gate.”

GROSS: This is your…

Mr. MEL WHITE: They’re stored in huge crates. Yeah, they’re stored in huge
crates, and invariably these young people are asking me how can you be sure
that God loves you if you’re gay? You know, the question that the church
should’ve answered a long time ago, the church has not answered. The church has
said God doesn’t love you as you are.

And so you cannot know how many people I’ve seen suffer, how many kids I’ve
buried who have killed themselves, how many kids I’ve visited in hospitals
who’ve tried to kill themselves, and it’s all because the church has gotten
this all wrong.

And so, yeah, my anger is bubbling just below the surface right now.

GROSS: Mike, can I ask you, when your father came out and, you know, made peace
with the fact that he was gay and then even became a gay activist, did that
have like a liberating effect on you to see like your father freed from the
suffering that he experienced for so many years?

Mr. MIKE WHITE: Definitely I’ve felt that he was happier once he was able to be
open and honest with everyone in his life about who he was, and at the same
time, you know, like you were just were listening to him, he’s – you know, he’s
still in the fight, you know, and he’s not hiding anymore, but I think that
he’s committed to helping others that were in the same position that he was in,
which is admirable.

And at the same time it’s definitely taken a toll on him. It’s not – you know,
like you said at the beginning of the interview, you know, he failed his
psychological tests, and they were questioning whether to let him go on “The
Amazing Race,” and when you think about the people that go on these reality
shows, like the fact that, you know, that my dad was on the border of whether
they felt like it was appropriate for him to come, it’s clear that, like, you
know, always being in the front lines of this, you know, fight has had a huge
impact on his psyche.

And I think that, you know, one of the great, unexpected fallouts of being on
the race is that so – he’s getting so much feedback now for being – you know,
for people seeing him as this, you know, compassionate and kind, funny guy that
he is, and proud father that he also is.

And I think, you know, it’s one of the first times in his life that I can
recall where he isn’t a divisive figure. Everybody just likes him, and they –
you know, he comes off sweet, and I think that’s going to be a healing thing
for him in a funny, unexpected way.

GROSS: Mike, you said that your father’s like still in the fight, and I’m
wondering, like, do you feel in the fight at all? You’ve described yourself in
publications – I’ve read that you are gay. I’ve read that you are bisexual. I’m
not really sure how you describe yourself. But either way, there would be
reason to become an activist if you were so inclined.

But it sounds like you don’t see yourself as being in the fight per se.

Mr. MIKE WHITE: Well, I think that in the world that I live – you know, I
inhabit, my chosen profession, there’s ways that you – through representation
and the kinds of stories you tell that you, you know, try to make your own
sense of what, you know, this is meaningful and this might effect change in
some way and people’s perceptions.

And for me, that’s where I’ve put my energy, is certainly from a professional
point of view. And at the same time, no, I’m not – I don’t consider myself an
activist in the way that my dad is. But you know, life is long. Who knows
what’s in store?

GROSS: And you’re not a churchgoer, right?

Mr. MIKE WHITE: No, I’m not a churchgoer.

GROSS: Mike and Mel White will be back in the second half the show. You may
have seen them together on the CBS reality series “The Amazing Race.” They were
eliminated two Sundays ago. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back with Mike White and his father
Mel White. You may have seen them work as a team on the CBS reality series “The
Amazing Race.” They were eliminated two Sundays ago. Mike White wrote the
movies “School of Rock,” “Chuck and Buck,” “Orange County,” and “Year of the
Dog,” and he wrote for the TV series “Freaks and Geeks.” His father Mel is a
Christian gay activist and co-founder of Soulforce. Before he came out, when he
was married and trying to overcome his homosexual feelings, he ghost wrote
books for Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Billy Graham.

Mel White, several of the evangelical leaders who you knew or have worked with
have passed on: Jerry Falwell, D. James Kennedy…

Mr. MEL WHITE: Francis Schaffer.

GROSS: Francis Schaffer, yeah Tammy Faye Bakker. So as the old leadership has
left or is leaving the stage, there’s new leadership coming up - probably most
famous Rick Warren. Do you see the new leadership changing things in terms of
the evangelical community’s leadership’s position on homosexuality?

Mr. MEL WHITE: No I don’t. These new megachurch leaders, they have a kind of
patina of cordiality. They love you but then they want you to change. So
they’re not like Jerry. You always knew who Jerry was, like a rattlesnake. But
these guys are without rattles, but they’re still snakes.

GROSS: Now Richard Cizik, who was the chief lobbyist for the National
Association of Evangelicals, he was fired from that position after saying on
our show that he supported civil unions.

Mr. MEL WHITE: Yeah.

GROSS: And I’m wondering, you know - I figured you were following that story. I
wonder what your observations about that was?

Mr. MEL WHITE: That – you know he was a very able guy. And he was fired because
he said what he said, which I think supports what I’m saying, that basically
the old guard dead has left a new guard in its place. And homosexuality is the
only issue they can’t deal with. The pastors say the people aren’t ready. The
people say the pastor isn’t ready. Nobody is ready and so kids by the millions
keep falling through the holes. So yeah, I don’t have any respect for most of
the megachurch leaders in terms of the stand they’ve taken.

They’ll work with people with AIDS in Namibia but they won’t let people with
AIDS into their congregation. I mean - or work with those who have AIDS in
their congregation. So yeah, I’m very pessimistic - paranoid.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now my understanding is that you moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, in part
to be close to Jerry Falwell and to protest his church and to always try to
goad him into changing and recognizing homosexuality as something that wasn’t
evil and that didn’t need to be changed and to just accept it. When he died,
what was your reaction to his death? I mean, you were almost like a duo in that
sense, like you’d been through so many sparring matches together.

Mr. MEL WHITE: Yeah. Gary and I - my partner Gary Nixon and I moved into a
little apartment right across the street from his church and then we would
invite people into our house after church and have cookies and so forth. Then
we would go into the church and when he’d talk about gay people we’d stand up
and protest. He got so used to us standing up in protest we became part of the
liturgy. So you know, it wasn’t much of a protest but we found in Lynchburg -
which is, you know, a southern city - we found a kind of acceptance opening up
little by little by little. And we are so pleased with what’s happening in the
churches of Lynchburg and the people of Lynchburg.

So for me, yeah, we missed when Jerry died - what one regret I had is that he
didn’t have a chance to apologize for all the lies and the half truths and the
hyperboles he had used against us. But I had to say there’s a lot of people who
will miss him because he was a good pastor. And he, you know, he was a good
provost and his university is going strong and his church is going strong

GROSS: Mike White, I have some questions for you. You’re one of our many guests
who has worked on “Freaks and Geeks,” the now cult status, short-lived TV
series set in high school. Now because you got started on “Freaks and Geeks”
early in your career you met Seth Rogen, Judd Apatow, Jason Siegel. And a while
ago in New York Magazine you had an interesting comment about “Knocked Up,”
which stars Seth Rogen and was directed by Judd Apatow.

And can I just quote that and get your reaction to this? You write: To me, I
definitely stand in the corner of wanting to give voice to the people who are
bullied and not the bully and here’s where comedy is catharsis for people who
are picked on. There’s a strain in “Knocked Up” where you sort of feel like
something’s changed a little bit. My sense of it is that because these guys are
idiosyncratic-looking, their perception is that they’re still the underdogs.
But there’s something about the spirit of this thing that comes under the guise
of comedy where it’s weird, at some point it starts feeling like comedy of the
bullies rather than the bullied.

And do you think that’s a strain that’s classically run through - a lot of teen
and young adult films and maybe even more so now that…

Mr. MIKE WHITE: Yeah, I mean to me – and I got into some, you know - there were
a lot of like follow-up conversations with Judd and those guys after that
article ran. And you know, I really respect Judd and lot of those movies are
funny to me but I also, you know, what I was trying to say was that, you know,
you feel like, you know, some of it is about the comedy of people whose, you
know, their scope of interest really ends in their, like, pleasure palace of,
you know, video games and, you know, genre movies and, you know. It’s like - so
if some of it you feel like it’s like - I don’t know, I guess I still feel a
version of what I said but I – but that’s not, you know, obviously there’s a
lot of - more to it than that and there’s a lot more that I like about those
movies and stuff. But, yeah I don’t know. I don’t want to get into trouble.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEL WHITE: It sounds like you’re backing off, Mike.

Mr. MIKE WHITE: I’ve just – you know it’s like – you know I – for me it was
like, it was definitely bad for him for me to say something negative about a
friend’s movie, you know, a week before it came out. And that had I been the –
on the receiving end of that I would have been – I would have been as irritated
as I’m sure Judd was. But I – you know, to me it was more trying to talk about
the strain of, you know, the, kind of, trend of comedy of late, which is you
know, where, you know, you feel like only certain kinds of characters populate
those movies. And not part of it I think is, you know, something worth talking
about, you know. And it’s not a judgment necessarily as just something to

And I think that, you know, it’s one thing when the characters like in “Freaks
and Geeks” are 12 years old and they’re, you know, being bullied on the
playground but when the characters are now in their 20’s and 30’s and the
psychology of it is still sort of in that same kind of - I don’t know. It’s the
same kind of identities that you, you just wonder, you know, at what point do
you get over, you know, being rejected by the hot girl when you were in junior
high and now it’s time to, you know, to look beyond the sort of, the, you know,
that kind of romantic storyline I guess. I don’t know it’s, it’s hard to

But it’s, you know, it’s an interesting thing that those movies are really
resonating right now with America and they’re funny, which is obviously the
reason why they’re successful. But I feel like there’s someone else smarter
than me should do a sort of, you know, an inquiry into what the catharsis is
for the viewer to see these movies about these particular characters.

GROSS: After having been on “The Amazing Race” do you feel like you have a
deeper understanding of why reality shows are so popular?

Mr. MIKE WHITE: Oh, I’ve always loved reality shows, I mean certain ones. And I
think that, you know, just being on “The Amazing Race” has made me even more of
a believer that real life lessons can be derived from reality shows - that
there’s some real truths to some of the lessons learned on reality shows. And I
think that’s part of why people tune in. It’s not just for the humiliation or
the ridiculousness or just, you know, people embarrassing themselves. It’s that
there’s actual things that are sustaining and interesting and that people that
then kind of apply to their own personalities or their own lives.

Mr. MEL WHITE: I went thinking that most people go to reality shows like people
go to attend racetracks because they like to see the wrecks. And I thought that
if you’re not nasty, you’re not going to be popular on a reality show. And yet
the kind of feedback we’re getting and that CBS is getting about Mike and me -
that we were having such a good time and it was such a relief from all the
fighting. So I’m kind of changed about that. I think maybe you could be very
popular on a reality show by just being nice.

GROSS: Well, thanks, thanks to both of you so much for talking about your lives
and your experiences on “The Amazing Race.” It was really fun to watch you both
on that - fun and surprising to see you there. So, good luck with the work that
you do and thank you so much for talking together with us. Thank you.

Mr. MIKE WHITE: Thanks, Terry.

Mr. MEL WHITE: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Mike White wrote the movies “School of Rock,” “Orange County,” “Chuck &
Buck” and “Year of the Dog.” His father Mel White co-founded Soulforce, whose
goal is freedom from religious and political oppression for gay, lesbian,
bisexual and transgender people.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
The Well-Meaning, Bad Parent


Well-meaning parents today often unintentionally hurt their children by
focusing too much on their children’s happiness or achievements, according to
my guest Richard Weissbourd. He’s the author of the new book “The Parents We
Mean to Be.” He’s a child and family psychologist on the faculty of Harvard.
His earlier book, “The Vulnerable Child,” was named by the American School
Board Journal as one of the top 10 education books of all time. Weissbourd is
the father of three children.

Richard Weissbourd, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your book is about how well-
intentioned adults can undermine children’s moral and emotional development.
What do we even mean when we say moral development?

Dr. RICHARD WEISSBOURD (Harvard Graduate School of Education): Well, I think
when we’re talking about moral development we’re really talking about number of
moral capacities. We’re talking about moral reasoning, you know, your ability
to think through moral problems. We’re talking about your sense of justice and,
you know, developing a sense of fairness and justice, your sense of caring,
your sense of responsibility. We’re talking also about social and emotional
capacities. You know, the capacity to help other people without patronizing
them, or to give feedback constructively - these day to day social skills that
I think are very much a part of morality.

So that’s mainly the kinds of things that I’m talking about. I would just also
say that I think as a culture we’re very focused on moral literacy, on whether
or not kids know the values or whether kids know what’s right from wrong. But
one of the things you see is by the time kids are five or six years old, they
basically know the values. You know, they basically know what right and wrong
is. And, you know, the bigger issue is really having those values be
internalized, having those values be a part of the self, a part of the child’s

So those values become more important than their moment to moment happiness at
a given moment, or they’re able to stand up for those values even if it has a
cost to themselves. So, you know, I think our focus shouldn’t be on moral
literacy. I think it should be on this much deeper issue of moral identity.

GROSS: I heard a lot of parents say with pride that their child is like their
best friend. You don’t think that’s really a very good thing? Why not?

Dr. WEISSBOURD: Well, you know, on the whole, I think it’s a very positive
trend that parents want to be close to their kids. I mean, I think it’s a
wonderful trend. I mean, parents are sharing more with their kids, they’re
listening to their kids, they’re spending more time with their kids. But, you

know, I’m also worried about it in some respects. You know, for one thing, some
parents, when they treat their kids as their best friends, become dependent on
their kids and emotionally dependent on their kids. And it’s much harder to
discipline or to make demands or to create high moral expectations when you’re
dependent on your kids.

We also, you know, let our kids separate from us. I mean, that’s critical for
them emotionally and morally to be able to separate from us. And when we’re
dependent on them, when they’re our best friends, that’s harder to do. And, you
know, just, I think the final thing I will say about it is that, you know, kids
need to idealize us. And that’s really the way in which they internalize our
values, that’s the way they adopt our values. And if we’re their best friend,
we’re treating them like we’re equals. And I think it can undermine that
process of idealization.

GROSS: Now, a lot of the parents of the children are the baby boomers, and I’m
wondering if you see any - I know that we’re getting into generalization here,
but if you see any generational differences between baby boom parents and the
children of baby boom - how they behave with parents?

Dr. WEISSBOURD: You know, I think there are some differences between the baby
boom generation and this generation of parents. I think there is – I mean to
some extent, this is certainly true in the baby boom generation of parents -
but there is a very high focus, among this generation of parents, on their
kids’ moment-to-moment feelings, which I think is somewhat different. I mean
this is one of the things that you see on playgrounds a lot. You see parents
who, you know - and I don’t want cartoon parents here, because it certainly
isn’t true with all parents.

But you see parents who are noting their kids’ moods every five or ten minutes,
you know, saying that must make you frustrated, or that must make you angry, or
that must make you sad, you know, sort of like pulling a bandage off every five
minutes to see if the wound is healing. And so I do think there is that kind of
close monitoring of kids’ feeling’s going on. And, you know, in some respects,
this is a good thing, that parents are trying to help their kids articulate
their feelings. But at the level it’s going on, I think it can be irritating
and stultifying and intrusive. And…


Dr. WEISSBOURD: …at this level.

GROSS: Yeah.

Dr. WEISSBOURD: Well, yeah. I mean I think it’s just sort of breaks down
spontaneous play if parents are noting every five or ten minutes how kids are
feeling. And it’s just very un-relaxing for kids. And, you know, I think also
sometimes kids - have to just work out these feelings on their own terms. So,
you know, again I don’t want to – I’m not - I’m all for parents helping kids to
express their feelings and doing it when these feelings are prolonged. I’m
worried about some parents and the frequency of it.

GROSS: When I was growing up, if you were away from home and away from your
parents, you’re out of reach for that amount of time. But now between cell
phones and texting, parents and children can be in constant communication. And
I wonder, you know, as a parent and as an observer, an expert on parent-child
relations, how you think that’s changing relationships?

Dr. WEISSBOURD: Well, you know, I just think it depends. You know, I just think
the amount of contact you have with your kid is really not a good barometer of
closeness or healthiness. Some kids really don’t want much contact with their
parents and that can be absolutely fine. They want to be independent and that’s
great. And other kids want a lot of contact and they want a certain kind of
intimacy, and that can be great as well. You know, I do worry some about
parent’s micro managing and hovering too much. And they’ve been in cell phone
contact is a way in which they’re micro managing and hovering, you know, that’s
not a good thing. You know, I was visiting a college with my son and, you know,
parents were asking me questions like - you know, this was during an admissions
process, we were just doing a tour of the college and parents were asking
questions like - is there a rotating shower schedule and does the washing
machine take cards or coins. I mean, there is a level of micro managing that
goes on that gets pretty nutty sometimes. But again, I don’t think frequency of
contact is really the barometer of closeness.

GROSS: Another thing you worried about is parents who try to be an authority
figure and a therapist to their child at the same time. What’s the conflict

Dr. WEISSBOURD: Well, you know, I think – again, I think sometimes kids really
need to work out their anger towards their parents on their own terms. And, you
know, being a therapist means, you know, listening to your kid and sometimes
helping your kid process their feelings, that’s a great thing. But if we are
talking about young kids and where, you know, kids are four or five or six
years old and kids were getting angry at their parents and their parents are
trying in the moment to help their kids’ process their feelings for them, I
mean sometimes that’s very appropriate.

But I think as a parent, you just have to be very careful that it’s not about
protecting you. It’s not about securing you, because you’re worried about - as
you can’t bear your child being angry at you. Because that you’re doing it
because you feel like this is a very important moment for kids to process their
feelings. Because kids, you know, will get angry at you sometimes and they do
have to work out their anger in their way.

GROSS: And you think that sometimes by playing the role of therapist, you are
basically trying to explain, to rationalize your own treatment of a child and
get them to agree that you were right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. WEISSBOURD: Sometimes, yeah.

GROSS: …shouldn’t be angry at you.

Dr. WEISSBOURD: Yeah. You know sometimes I think that’s right. You’re trying to
get your child to agree they shouldn’t be angry at you or that you have a -
they have a good reason for being angry at you. And, you know, sometimes they
are just angry. You know, they have to leave the park and they have to leave
the pool and they are angry and don’t get over it and it doesn’t really need to
be discussed.

GROSS: My guest is Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd, author of the book
“The Parents We Mean to Be.” We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

If you’re just joining us, my guest is child and family psychologist Richard
Weissbourd and his new book is called “The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-
Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development.” You
know, you write in your book how parents are often obsessed with their
children’s happiness, but sometimes by elevating happiness as the most
important thing there are other really important values that get demoted in the
process. Could you describe your concerns there?

Dr. WEISSBOURD: Well, yeah. I mean I think it’s a concern about happiness and
about self-esteem, and I just, you know, think in a day-to-day way, there are

subtle ways in which we all prioritize our kids’ happiness over their caring
for others, or their taking responsibility for others. And you know, on
playgrounds you see parents who are very attuned to how their kids are doing
moment-to-moment but they are not helping – and again, not all parents - but
they are not helping their kids, you know, reach out to a friendless kid on the
playground or they are letting their kid interrupt a group of older kids during
a game. You know, they are not helping their kids tune into other kids.

And you know, with my own kids, I feel like, you know, there have been times
where I haven’t insisted that they won’t return phone calls from friends or
I’ve let them write off kids that were annoying, or… You know, one of the
examples I – stories I talked about in the book, is a couple who has, you know,
they have a junior in high school and she is thinking about whether or not she
wants to quit the soccer team, she’s not enjoying it anymore. And the mother
says, you know, you should quit. It’s not fun for you anymore. And the father
says, but you know, it’s important for your college resume.

But neither of them are thinking about the team, and you know, her obligations
to the team. And so I just worry, we’re off whack with this, we’re rather
balance. And our focus, you know, in these ways becomes very much on our
individual kids’ well being, and not on their sense of responsibility for

And the irony is that, you know, I feel like if our kids are able to tune in
and focus and care about other people, they’re going to have better
relationships their whole lives. So they are going to be better parents. They
are going to better grandparents. They are going to be better friends to
people. I mean this is the foundation for life-long happiness. So in the end, I
think, you know, the focus on our individual kids’ happiness is not only going
to make them less moral, but its going to less - make them less happy in the

GROSS: For years, you’ve been writing about the overemphasis on self-esteem and
in our new book, you write that Americans have become intoxicated with the
power of self-esteem. What are some of the ways that educators and parents have
been using to try to build self-esteem that you are concerned about?

Dr. WEISSBOURD: Well, one of them is praise. And you know, praise for real
accomplishment is very important, praise for effort, real effort, is very
important. But again, I think that you see an excess of praise. I mean, you see
a kind of steady stream of praise sometimes. And in schools, and you see it
with parents on playgrounds. You know, not long - I was watching a father and a
son play catch with a ball. And every single time the kid threw the ball or
caught the ball, the father praised it, and when the kid dropped the ball he
said nice try.

And there are sports programs that are advocating, you know, that you praise
kids five times for every time you criticize them. And you know again, I think
it’s very important to praise kids, but you know, one of things that happens
is, I think, at some point kids feel like this praise is meaningless, that it’s
vapid. I think sometimes when they are getting praised a lot, they can also
feel patronized by it. Like, why do adults need to keep propping me up? When
you’re praising kids all the time, you are also judging them all the time. And,
you know, so I think kids feel like their performance is at stake. And there’s
this research that says that, you know, kids who are feeling that their
performance is at stake all the time and who are praised a lot, can get very
competitive and very threatened by other kids.

And I – I just think its important that we think - that we’re mindful about why
we’re – when we’re praising a lot, about why we’re doing it and really think
about it, you know, how kids are responding. And think about, you know, is this
about real accomplishment and is this about real effort.

GROSS: So you - your concern, in part, is that we are trying to build self
esteem by praise. But that – that’s not necessarily going to build durable self
esteem. What do you think will?

Dr. WEISSBOURD: I think the chain here is, I think, we think the praise, among
other things, will build self esteem and then self esteem will build character.
You know, I think self esteem primarily comes from confidence, you know, from
being good at things, good at things at school. You know, having social
competence, and I think it also comes from virtue, from acting virtuously, if
that something gets valued in your family or community. I think it – it comes
from having good relationships too. You know, close relationships in which you
really appreciate it. So, you know, I think if we focus on helping kids develop
those things, they are going to be in much better shape. You know, rather than
happiness or self esteem being the goal, one of the things I’m arguing in the
book is that, I think it makes sense for maturity to be the goal.

And, you know, if you, if you think of maturity is the ability to take other
peoples perspectives and to manage destructive feelings and to take criticism
and to learn from it and to be self observing – you know, I think those are the
qualities in the end, that, you know, are the basis for morality, but I also
think they are the basis for good relationships and for lasting well being and
for – and for competence.

GROSS: Well Richard Weissbourd, I want to thank you very much for talking with

Dr. WEISSBOURD: Oh, it’s great to be here.

GROSS: Richard Weissbourd is the author of the new book “The Parents We Mean to
Be.” He is a child and family psychologist who teaches at Harvard. You can
download podcasts of our show on our Web site I’m Terry
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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