(RNS) Ron Fournier, a political writer for National Journal and The Atlantic, has taken a break from politics to discuss a far more important topic: being a father to his son.
His book “Love That Boy: What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, and My Son Taught Me About a Parent’s Expectations” was released earlier this month. Here’s a conversation with Fournier about rearing a special-needs child within the context of his Catholic faith.
Q: If people heard that you were writing a book, they might think it was about the implications of the 2016 election cycle, not this deeply personal story. What was the path that led to you writing this kind of book?
A: The path, like every good thing in my life, opened up with my wife, Lori. The day our youngest child, Tyler, was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, or high-functioning autism, she declared it was time for me to step up. Spend more time with our son, Lori said, and expose him to situations where he can practice the social skills he had not inherited.
Just as quickly, she said I should take Tyler to presidential sites because history is one of Tyler’s obsessions, and my job covering the presidency kept me away from Tyler and his two older sisters.
Lori told me to write about the trips so “Tyler will always know how much we loved him.” It made me sad then — and makes me sad now — to think that he might not have known already.
Q: You mentioned that the Knights of Columbus play a big role in your life and in this book. Can you say more about that?
A: Lori and I are both Catholics. Our faith is important to us. Just as important is the community that faith offers. In our case, it’s a Knights of Columbus chapter near our home in Arlington, Va., where we have so many friends. When the kids were small, the Knights (chapter) was where we took them swimming. Now that the kids are older, the bar inside the century-old granite farmhouse is where Lori and I slip away for our weekly “date knights.” Tyler’s first job was working at the Knights’ summer camp, a big deal in his development.
Q: It appears we have now created the cultural expectation that parents should have quality control over our children, kind of like what we expect to have over products in the marketplace. In light of what you are trying to do in telling Tyler’s story, can you comment on this?
A: One of the lessons I learned from the road trips, from the interviews I did with dozens of other parents, and from all the social science research I did: We don’t have much control over our kids’ futures. The mistake many of us make is to shape and misshape our children based on our expectations for them. The expectations are internal (I wanted Tyler to be a jock, because my dad and I bonded via sports) and external (economic and social change create anxiety that parents naturally transfer into pressure upon their kids).
Notice that this all comes from a good place: We love our kids. We love them so much we want some control over their choice of friends, what they learn in school, how they compete and win after school, who they date and marry, what they do for a living, etc. I’m starting to realize ceding control is perhaps the most important part of the hard art of parenting.
Q: Do we need a theological grounding in order to come to the kind of conclusion you did about Tyler? Or is there some other way to change our social consciousness?
A: I think that’s a choice each parent must make.
Look, I’m not a religious scholar. All I know is my faith teaches me that God created only one perfect man — and it wasn’t me. Also, there are no perfect parents.
The book is my humble attempt to walk Lori’s path and become a bit better man.
Q: My wife and I are about to adopt a sibling group from the Philippines. Many people reading this interview are, like me, future parents. What advice do you have for us?
Again, I’m no expert but I know a few, starting with several child development professionals who helped me contextualize my research and reading, and including more than three dozen parents who related their experiences, insights and advice. I closed the book with the 10 biggest things I learned from this project and, since I started this conversation with Lori, I’ll end it with the first paragraph from lesson #7:
“Be a spouse first, a parent second. The best thing I did for my kids was loving their mom (Granted, loving Lori is the easiest thing I’ll ever do.)”
(Charles Camosy is associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University)