Matthew McConaughey’s Childhood in Texas

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Greenlights" by Matthew McConaughey. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What was Matthew McConaughey’s childhood like? How did this affect him as an adult?

Matthew McConaughey was raised in Texas alongside his two brothers. His parents were tough but encouraged the boys to stand up for themselves and believe in their own potential.

Read more about Matthew McConaughey’s siblings and their upbringing together in Texas.

McConaughey’s Early Childhood

Matthew was born in 1969 in Uvalde, Texas, where he spent his first ten years. He was an “accident.” For the first five months she carried him, Kay thought he was a tumor.

He had two older brothers, Mike and Pat. Mike bore the nickname “Rooster” because he always woke up at the crack of dawn. Pat came into the family by adoption when Mike said he wanted a little brother for his tenth birthday. 

During Matthew McConaughey’s childhood, Jim and Kay taught their three sons to believe in God, passing along a reverence for both Old Testament sternness and New Testament mercy. They didn’t hesitate to use physical discipline on their boys when they thought it necessary. And while they did mete out “whuppings” for such mundane infractions as cursing, the three McConaughey boys knew they were only really in trouble whenever they said or did something that, in their parents’ opinion, would ultimately hurt them (the sons) by diminishing them or distorting their identities. For example, Matthew received his first such punishment in kindergarten when he responded to being called “Matt” on the playground. As Kay punished him, she told him that he wasn’t named after a doormat. Another time, he was punished for saying the words “I can’t.”

The attention to language was especially impactful. Jim and Kay raised their sons to be careful of what they said because words embody values. They taught their boys never to use hateful words, never to claim to be helpless, and never to lie. Matthew later recognized this training as a very early greenlight in his life.

Little Mr. Texas and a Plagiarized Poem

With her tendency to “fudge” reality, Kay inadvertently helped to forge the sensibility in Matthew that would make him a good actor. For example, In 1977, Kay entered Matthew in a contest called “Little Mr. Texas.” He came away with a trophy, and his mother hung a framed photo of him with it on the kitchen wall. From then on, she referred to him as Little Mr. Texas. Decades later, he looked again at the photo and saw that the trophy’s nameplate actually said “runner-up.” When he called his mother to ask about it, she told him that he had been the real Little Mr. Texas because the nominal winner came from a rich family that “cheated” by buying their son a fancy suit for the contest. Matthew McConaughey’s childhood was filled with instances like this one.

When Matthew was in seventh grade and trying to write a poem for a school contest, Kay had him read a poem by Ann Ashford and then told him to submit it to the contest as his own. When he questioned her on this, she said that since he understood the poem and liked it, in a way it really did belong to him. She also said that if he won the contest with it, the worst the school could do if they found out was to take back the medal. So he entered Ashford’s poem as his own. And he did win the contest. 

Longview, Texas, and the Tallest Treehouse in the World

One of the defining moments of Matthew McConaughey’s childhood was building a treehouse. When Matthew was around 10, he experienced a change that taught him the importance of finding freedom by building your own structure. The lesson was literal: It involved the building of an enormous treehouse.

Jim and Kay had moved the family from Uvalde to Longview. Mike was already grown up and living on his own. Pat was away at golf camp. Kay was enjoying an extended “vacation” in Florida. (Matthew didn’t know at the time that she and Jim were actually going through their second divorce.) This meant Matthew and Jim spent several months by themselves in Longview, living in a double-wide trailer.In a new town with an empty summer ahead of him, Matthew made a project of building a treehouse in a huge white pine. It was a major project involving a month of stealing boards, plywood planks, and nails from a local lumberyard at night and transporting them to the site. Then he spent six weeks building the treehouse, working 12-hour days and making the structure ever higher, until it was a full 13 stories tall, reaching up to the top of that towering pine. When he was finished, he spent the rest of the summer sitting on the top floor, eating bag lunches and daydreaming as he gazed out over the panorama of the forest beneath him. Today, he remembers that summer as the best one of his life. The treehouse and everything that went with it was a greenlight. He had built a haven for himself that served as a source of peace in a new environment.

Matthew McConaughey’s Childhood in Texas

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Matthew McConaughey's "Greenlights" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Greenlights summary:

  • How "greenlights" help you confirm if you're on the right path
  • How McConaughey switched college choices because of family finances
  • Why family is at the center of everything for McConaughey, no matter what's happening in his career

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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