Ron Fournier was accustomed to shaking up Washington as a political journalist. That his work caused divisions within his own family was harder to grasp.
A columnist for the National Journal who previously ran the D.C. bureau for Associated Press, Fournier says his workaholic tendencies disconnected him from his wife and three children. An episode of the TV show Parenthood ultimately brought him to tearfully confront a reality he’d been avoiding: His youngest, Tyler, had Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism.
In his new book Love That Boy: What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, and My Son Taught Me About a Parent’s Expectations, Fournier describes how he’d allowed his own firmly entrenched expectations for his son to blind him to Tyler’s needs. He decided to change, and one of the things he did along the way was to take his son on a series of road trips—to Tyler’s favorite places, which were presidential libraries.
Below, Fournier talks about the book and why we need to “love that boy”—or girl—in our own family who doesn’t conform to expectations.
Bethanne Patrick: Let’s talk about your title, Love That Boy, because it has several layers—and involves kindness from a president that many people love to hate.
Ron Fournier: One thing I observed about Presidents Clinton and Bush was that while Clinton was great at reading a country, he was not as great at reading a room. If I had the choice of having a beer with Bill or Hillary Clinton, I’d choose Hillary, hands down! Bush has always been better one on one, and back in 2003 when he looked me in the eye after meeting Tyler and said “Love that boy,” I knew he meant “Love your son despite the fact that he’s so quirky; love him because he’s a good kid.” But I didn’t learn until after Tyler was diagnosed to love him not despite but because of his idiosyncrasies—and that’s what I want to get across in this book.
Interview Author Ron Fournier and Son Tyler Interview Ron Fournier and Son
BP: Tell me how parenting Tyler taught you about parenting your other children, his two older sisters Holly and Gabrielle.
RF: One of the things a lot of people are connecting to in this book is something I didn’t know I was writing about while I was writing: My wife Lori is the hero of this book. Holly is 10 years older than Tyler; when he was diagnosed, she was graduating from college, and Gabrielle was getting ready to leave for her own college education. It’s less how they shaped him than about how he shaped them. Like a lot of older siblings of special-needs kids, our girls have grown up with an extra dose of empathy and resilience they might not have had without their brother.
BP: Another aspect of your book concerns how you and Lori learned to parent together.
RF: One of the more emotional moments of writing this book was when I interviewed Lori for it. During the interview I was very dispassionate, playing the professional journalist, getting her to open up more. . . It wasn’t until I went back months later to transcribe the interview that I sobbed and sobbed, realizing what I’d done to her. I don’t want to be overly maudlin about it, but I failed her. I finally listened to her tell me in her own words how hard life had been for her as she tried to parent without a partner. The result is that I was forced to become more self aware and she was forced to stand up for herself more and be heard. It got us both more outside of ourselves and now we’re a lot more connected.
BP: Why visit presidential libraries?
RF: The fact that we did, that it connects to my work as a White House correspondent—well, that was just a nice crutch for me, a nice piece of symmetry. The real point goes back to learning that you have to do something your child is passionate about, not what you are passionate about.
BP: Explain “authoritative” parenting versus “authoritarian” parenting.
RF: I’m not a child-development expert, so I won’t try to explain it in their terms, but for me it means replace your expectations and rigid rules with goal-setting and more general standards. Instead of thinking and proclaiming “My child will play sports!” break it down and know that what you really want is for your child to get exercise and to learn about team building. What can you do to help them meet those goals that will work with their needs?
Don’t fall into the habit, even before birth, of setting too-specific expectations for your kids. Don’t be dreaming about what your kids will do before you know what they want to do. There’s a world of difference in insisting on ballet classes and dancing in the front room. One is strict. One is playful. One is authoritarian. One is authoritative.
BP: I don’t want to neglect discussing Asperger’s Syndrome, especially because I was moved by the interactions and interviews you had with other “Aspy” parents.
RF: I wanted the book to be universal, and I’m glad to say that most of the people who have emailed me aren’t necessarily Aspies or Aspy parents. That’s not because I am not connected to the Asperger’s community—I am, through many people, and they help me to see Tyler’s potential path. But it’s important to remember that we all miss the mark of our parents’ expectations, and it’s only by learning that our children are not continuations of ourselves that we can start to realize even kids with Asperger’s Syndrome have different and varied future lives.
BP: What can parents do to balance parenting and work, especially in order to pay attention to their children’s real interests and real challenges?
RF: One of the most beneficial things is to be more self-aware. Every day you’re making decisions that affect your family, and no matter what you do most of the decisions are going to be wrong. We’re all imperfect, join the club!
When you are home, be home. Be present. You don’t have to be on your BlackBerry all the time.
Keep communication open with your partner and kids. If you have a conflict between family and work, discuss it. Sometimes we have to make tough calls, but if your spouse and your children know that you’re considering their needs, it makes a big difference.
BP: What are your children doing now?
RF: Holly is a wife, mother, and doctor; Gabrielle is in law school and plans to work with children in some way. Tyler graduates from high school this year and we plan to move back to Detroit, where he’ll attend community college for a year or two. Although he’s got the grades for a traditional four-year college, he needs to work on some executive-functioning stuff like learning a budget, keeping his own schedule, and such. He still likes comedy, but his new passion comes from his sister Gabrielle. She likes kickboxing classes, and urged him to give boxing a try. He loves hitting a bag and interacting with his instructor. He’s also found out that he really likes working with kids—so his future looks bright.