With Father’s Day coming up, I can’t help but think about father and son relationships. The good, the bad, the messy. The one thing they all have in common is love. But what is love? It’s an age-old question yielding scores of songs, poems, philosophies and definitions, including this one from Merriam-Webster: “A feeling of strong or constant affection for a person.” A better-known discourse on the concept – or emotion – can be found in Corinthians 13:4-8, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
Alas, love may never fail but it can disappoint when improperly applied, –especially when it comes to raising kids. Then it may appear, well, messy.
That’s sort of the point of the new book from the National Journal’s Ron Fournier, “Love That Boy: What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, and My Son Taught Me About a Parent’s Expectations.” As Fournier says, “A parent’s love is unconditional. A parent’s satisfaction comes with caveats.”
And therein lies the rub.
In the book Fournier takes us on a guided tour of his evolving relationship with his son, Tyler. Like many dads with boys, Fournier envisioned bonding with Tyler through athletics, much the same way that he developed a deep and personal connection to his own father. With Tyler that connection was problematic. Socially awkward and more interested in books, video games and history than with anything played on a diamond, court or field, Tyler forged a different path – all the while worried that his dad wouldn’t “like” him as much for doing so.
Finally, at age twelve, with an Asperger’s diagnosis in hand – and no small amount of encouragement from his mother, Lori – Tyler headed off with his dad to visit presidential libraries and homes. Those road trips served as a catalyst of sorts, the result of which dramatically changed Fournier’s take on his uniquely wired son. Of that revelation Fournier writes, “You love your kids no matter what, but you expect them to be something – smart or popular or successful, maybe a scholarship athlete who marries well and runs the family business. These expectations often are older than the kids they define … Parenthood is the last chance to be the person we hoped to be. We want to get it right. We want it to be perfect, and that’s the problem.”
That is the problem. Because perfect is illusory.
And so it is that this enlightening new book speaks both to the burdens of expectations we place on our children and the ones we place on ourselves.
How best to avoid this strangulating strategy? A good place to start is by looking at a range of “parenting styles” described by psychologist Diana Baumrind and colleagues: authoritarian, permissive, and authoritative. Baumrind is credited with pointing to authoritative parenting – high on expectations (demandingness) and warmth (responsiveness) – as “almost perfect.”
Others, such as Barry Garst, Ph.D., associate professor in the College of Health, Education, and Human Development at Clemson University, speak to “normative parenting.” Garst says this type of parenting is marked by appropriate amounts of warmth and support, behavioral control and the granting of autonomy. It is predictive of well-being in areas such as social competence, academic performance and pro-social behavior. In contrast, Garst offers that “overparenting” (a form of non-normative parenting) is characterized by parents who apply developmentally inappropriate parenting through excessive problem-solving, high levels of control and involvement, and overzealous protection.
TIME magazine’s managing editor Nancy Gibbs, in her article “The Growing Backlash Against Overparenting,” says, “A certain amount of hovering is understandable when it comes to young children, but many educators are concerned when it persists through middle school and high school. Some teachers talk of ‘Stealth Fighter Parents,’ who no longer hover constantly but can be counted on for a surgical strike just when the high school musical is being cast or the starting lineup chosen.”
Noting that overinvolved parenting may extend beyond the high school years, Gibbs says that many colleges and universities “have had to invent a ‘director of parent programs’ to run regional groups so moms and dads can meet fellow college parents or attend special classes where they can learn all the school cheers.” To help parents like these, the University of West Georgia’s website offers some tips from a student’s perspective about how best to parent a college freshman, including:.
Write (Even if They Don’t Write Back)
Ask Questions (But Not Too Many)
Expect Change (But Not Too Much)
Don't Worry (Too Much)
Might it make sense to add one more, “Trust yourself”?
Kate Tietje of the website Modern Alternative Mama says, “Now, I know many people would say, ‘It doesn’t matter what label you use; you don’t need labels. Just do you.’ I agree, to a point. Really, we don’t need to label ourselves. We don’t need to follow any philosophy strictly. We don’t need to listen to someone else’s words more than our own intuition … I simply ignore our culture either way, and accept the practices that I believe are best for my family.”
Dr. Leonard Sax, author of the book, “The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups,” also serves up some common-sense simplicity. In a recent interview, he said that the purpose of his book is to tell parents they need to give kids choices in some matters but not in others. He told NPR, “But so many parents think it is their job to be their child's best friend. That's not your job. Your job is to keep your child safe, make sure they get a good night's sleep and give them a grounding and confidence and help them to know who they are as human beings.”
Equally important, Garst, who is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), reminds us, “Parenting is NOT necessarily the same in all contexts,” which seems to further amplify the need for flexibility and the risks of rigidity.
Similarly, Gibbs points out, “The revolutionary leaders are careful about offering too much advice. Parents have gotten plenty of that, and one of the goals of this new movement is to give parents permission to disagree or at least follow different roads.” She quotes Carl Honoré, author of Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children From the Culture of Hyper-Parenting (2008) as saying, “People feel there's somehow a secret formula for parenting, and if we just read enough books and spend enough money and drive ourselves hard enough, we'll find it, and all will be O.K. … Can you think of anything more sinister, since every child is so different, every family is different? Parents need to block out the sound and fury from the media and other parents, [and] find that formula that fits your family best."
That seems to be the magic the Fourniers found, learning to love the children you have – and the parents you are – rather than the ones you may have wished for.
Love, along with its debris, rather than in spite of it. Some good advice not just for Father’s Day, but for every day of fatherhood.
Stephen Gray Wallace is president and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing positive youth outcomes and reducing negative risk behaviors. He has broad experience as a school psychologist, adolescent/family counselor and college professor. He currently serves as director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Camp Association and a parenting expert at kidsinthehouse.com and NBCUniversal’s parenttoolkit.com. He is also an expert partner at RANE (Risk Assistance Network & Exchange). For additional information about Stephen’s work, please visit StephenGrayWallace.com.