Political journalist Ron Fournier’s memoir Love That Boy is a uniquely personal story about the causes and costs of outsized parental expectations. This story came out of a column he did for the National Journal that received a lot of attention. Not only does Ron explore modern parenting through his experiences and the latest research on childhood development, but he also weaves in how his son Tyler’s autism diagnosis affects their relationship and ultimately strengthens it. (Not to mention the fascinating backdrop filled with road trips to meet presidents and visit some of our country’s greatest historical sites!)
Continue reading for an excerpt of Love That Boy and watch the interview Ron and Tyler did with Autism Speaks for the book and Autism Awareness Month!
My conversations with parents almost always start with a basic question: “What expectations do you have for your children as they grow up?” The answer almost always begins with some variation of “All I want is for them to be happy.” But I wonder, is that really all they want? After all, I’m sure there are happy serial killers. Think of all the happy assholes you know. “Why is it that bad people can be happy?” wrote Marc Gellman in a 2006 essay for Newsweek magazine. “The reason is that happiness as defined by our culture has become just a synonym for pleasure, and anyone can feel pleasure.”
I highly recommend Gellman’s essay, “An Argument Against Happiness,” because it blows conventional wisdom to smithereens. The synonym for happiness is not pleasure, he wrote. It’s goodness. “True happiness, the kind of happiness we ought to wish for our children and for ourselves is almost always the result of doing hard but good things over and over.”
People tell researchers that getting married didn’t make them any happier, and neither did having children or making a lot of money. That’s because happiness for most people is defined as pleasure, and most of what makes a marriage or parenthood fulfilling is not very pleasurable. But it is good.
The unbounded pursuit of pleasure is harmful. Researchers in the booming field of positive psychology see a direct link between increasing cultural emphasis on materialism and status and the rising rates of depression, paranoia, and psychopathology. People who focus on living with a sense of purpose are more likely to remain healthy and intellectually sound and even to live longer than people who focus on achieving feelings of “happiness” via pleasure.
There is nothing wrong with the pleasure that comes with a big meal, a sexy night, or victory on the playing field—but it’s fleeting. Raising kids, working through marriage troubles, and volunteering at a soup kitchen may be less pleasurable, but these pursuits provide fulfillment—a sense that you’re the best person you can be. Researchers call this “hedonic well-being” and link it directly to lower levels of cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and other maladies. The research appears consistent at every income and education level, and among all races.
This reminds me of a family story. When my brothers were in their teens, they delivered televisions for an appliance store in suburban Detroit. One day they were assigned a delivery in an achingly poor and crime-ridden Detroit neighborhood. After installing the TV, my brothers were walking out of the apartment building when they noticed a familiar form headed toward them, a huge man wearing jeans and a T‑shirt. It was Dad’s day off, and he looked startled at first—then a bit angry.
“What are you boys doing down here?” Dad said, sternly. “This is a bad neighborhood.” He was carrying two bags of our clothes—pants and shirts that we had outgrown.
Tim asked, “What are you doing down here?”
Dad shrugged. “Just seeing some people I know.”
At this point in our lives, we already knew Dad couldn’t pass a stranded driver; he always stopped to help. I once saw him shake hands with a homeless man outside a Red Wings game, discreetly passing a couple of crumpled dollar bills to the guy he called Bill. “Thank you, Ron,” the man said.
What do I ultimately want for my kids? I want them to pursue the happiness that is found in goodness. On a day off, I want them to bring outgrown clothes to a bad neighborhood.
Watch Ron and Tyler talk about autism, their relationship, and Love That Boy in this interview with Autism Speaks.
Excerpted from Love That Boy. Copyright 2016 by Ron Fournier. Published in the United States by Harmony Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.