- - Wednesday, June 8, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

LOVE THAT BOY: WHAT TWO PRESIDENTS, EIGHT ROAD TRIPS AND MY SON TAUGHT ME ABOUT A PARENT’S EXPECTATIONS

By Ron Fournier

Harmony, $26, 240 pages

Today parents are bombarded with expert advice and theories on the right way to parent and what parents should expect from their children. There are countless news stories about overly permissive parents, “free-range parents” who let their children explore their surroundings with modest supervision, and so-called “helicopter parents” who do not allow their children to do the most basic things. These parenting styles often spring from parents’ sometimes unrealistic expectations for their children for such things as popularity, genius or athletic stardom.

In his frank and touching memoir, “Love that Boy: What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips and My Son Taught Me About a Parent’s Expectations,” veteran political journalist Ron Fournier explains how he and his wife dealt with their son Tyler’s diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism.

When his son was born, Mr. Fournier had many expectations. As Tyler grew, he did not match up to those expectations. He did not share his father’s love of sports, and he had difficulty making friends. He has a photographic memory that allowed him to recall and recite obscure facts, especially about animals and U.S. presidents. It also caused awkward situations since he is unable to gauge other people’s feelings from facial cues that others see clearly.

At times, Mr. Fournier was afraid his son would embarrass him in front of the president with one of his outbursts. When he was 12, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s. Mr. Fournier and his wife, Lori, knew that his behavior was more than a phase and that he would never outgrow it.

Mr. Fournier covered Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush for the Associated Press and National Journal. Like many of those with influential jobs, Mr. Fournier’s gave him access to many of the country’s top officials. Yet, it often kept him away from home, following the president across the country and around the world.

Following the diagnosis, Lori, insisted that he take Tyler to the homes and libraries of U.S. presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and John Quincy Adams. What followed was a trip that brought about more acceptance and understanding.

Mr. Fournier notes how the family lives of presidents affected their upbringing, as well as their relationships with their own children. Gerald Ford’ (born Leslie Lynch King) had a birth father who was abusive to his mother. His parents divorced when he was an infant. She married Gerald Ford, who gave his stepson his name. Mr. Ford had four children of his own, who grew up to be happy and adjusted.

The trip was capped by personal meetings for Ron and Tyler Fournier with former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Mr. Fournier’s wife insisted he contact the former presidents to arrange the meetings. She firmly told him: “You can use a job that took you away from Tyler to help him now.” Mr. Fournier admits his coverage of both men was equally tough while they were in office.

Bill Clinton comes across as engaging. He was informed of Tyler’s interest in presidential history, especially his admiration for Theodore Roosevelt. Mr. Clinton gave Tyler an extensive lecture on the historical parallels of himself and the first Roosevelt to serve as president. Mr. Clinton gave Tyler a volume of letters Theodore Roosevelt sent to his children.

In the meeting with George W. Bush, the former president asked Tyler if he likes sports. After quickly answering that he hates sports, Ron Fournier tries to soften the conversation by discussing the rivalry of the Detroit Tigers and the Texas Rangers. Mr. Bush has none of it and insists on keeping the conversation focused on Tyler. It is in this conversation that Tyler reveals his desire to be a comedian.

As a result of these meetings, Mr. Fournier realizes that his son is not causing him embarrassment. At the end of the meeting, Mr. Bush said, “He’s a good kid, Fournier.” Mr. Fournier acknowledges, “He’s a good kid, which makes him a happy kid, which makes me a decent dad — almost worthy of my brilliantly unique son.”

“Love That Boy” includes interviews with parents of special needs children, as well as citations of research on child development. Mr. Fournier is, at times, unnecessarily hard on himself for any of his actual or perceived parental missteps. There are also thought-provoking questions at the end that parents should take to heart.

Career-oriented Washington parents will immediately recognize themselves in this book. Affluent parents may be able to afford an extensive road trip to bond with their children, however, the overall message of learning to accept one’s children as gifts will touch all parents, whether they have toddlers or teenagers.

Kevin P. McVicker is vice president at Shirley & Banister Public Affairs in Alexandria, Va.

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