Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Love That Boy by Ron Fournier (Book Review #48 of 2016)

Love That Boy: What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, and My Son Taught Me About a Parent's Expectations

I read this book after reading Stephen Gallup's What About the Boy? which is also by the father of a special needs son. While united in the bond of father-son love, these books are night and day in their tone and outlook. I recommend Love That Boy over the former, although the other does a better job of showing the world of being a special-needs parent (I'm the proud father of an autistic son closer to the son in Fournier's book).
Fournier's son was much higher-functioning, qualifying for an Asparger's diagnosis (before DSM V made it all "autism spectrum"). Fournier was a White House press writer who covered both the Clinton and Bush '43 presidencies. The title comes from the advice President Bush gave Fournier on meeting Tyler and getting a glimpse of his precociousness. Fournier leverages his contact with the presidents to land an interviews/meetings between them and his son.

But the book is more about the relationship between father and son, and an introspection into what we want for our children and why we have such lofty standards. It's about Fournier's journey to "loving your child for who he is, and not who you want him to be." Fournier asks why we have children in the first place--because we wanted someone to love, and/or we wanted someone to love us back. Why do we get disappointed in our kids interests and behaviors? Where do our expectations come from? Fournier encouraged Tyler to try sports, hoping he would take to baseball and pushing him to work "his best." He was not the sports-driven dad, but he admits and repents of his disappointment over Tyler's lack of interest. Fournier confesses his earlier pursuit of his career in DC at the expense of his family, recognizing it almost cost him what he loves most.

Presidents Clinton and Bush both meet with Tyler privately. Bush tells stories off the record, and Clinton also has long, detailed monologues. Clinton and Tyler engage in a humorous transaction about Teddy Roosevelt, who Clinton reveres and compares himself to whenever he can. The amusing part is that Tyler fills in the details about Roosevelt that he has memorized as Clinton waxes on. Fournier's cursory research on autism leads him to wonder whether Clinton might be an undiagnosed autistic himself. (Fournier seems somewhat ignorant of Simon Baron-Cohen's research on autism being an extension of the male brain, which I would recommend others read, but I digress.) Both presidents were kind and generous with their time. Bush was loving and not judgmental. 

Tyler was always different from other children, but the Fourniers hoped he would grow out of it; he was 12 before his diagnosis. Tyler is eventually able to open up to his dad about where his happiness comes from-- why he bothered playing baseball to make his dad happy. He is able to find happiness in solitary activity and other things that don't involve social interaction and sports. He and his dad build a good bond by the time he turns 16. (Aside, Fournier takes his son at his word. I read stories by other autistics as adults that they wish their parents had made them do more activities involving social interaction even though they would have resisted it as kids. This is something I think about a lot as the parent of a 3rd grade child on the autism spectrum.) A family that Fournier knows sees their daughter commit suicide at 24 after struggling with depression. This jolts the Fourniers to embrace every moment they have with their children and to create a loving environment. Fournier rightly relates a diagnosis of clinical depression to one with autism-- they both come with stigmas. But we'd be better off as families running towards the diagnosis, rather than running away from it. Loving our children for who they are and where they're at, rather than trying to fix things so that they are someone else. Fournier closes the book with some advise about expectations, pressure, and creating small moments and memories for your children.

I give this book 4 stars out of 5. Fournier's message for fathers is great no matter where your son is at in life. The backdrop of interviewing the former presidents painted some nice bipartisan optimism into the book as well.

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