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Growing Up in a Glass Bowl: Malia & Sasha in the White House

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Esther Cleveland was a first:  Born in the White House in 1893, her two-year old sister, Ruth, was already popular with the public. Quentin Roosevelt, Teddy’s youngest, roller skated through the halls and shot spitballs at a portrait of Andrew Jackson.  His notorious older sister, Alice, slid down banisters to greet dignitaries.  Tad and Willie Lincoln, the same age as the Obama daughters, once herded goats into a sitting room. 

More recently, Caroline and John Kennedy are remembered for their antics in the Oval Office.  Amy Carter, nine years old when she moved into1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, had tea parties in a tree house on the South Lawn.  Lucie Baines Johnson and her sister, Lynda, spent a good part of their teen years in the White House.  Chelsea Clinton, shielded from public scrutiny, still took some hits from the media about her appearance as an adolescent.  And the Bush twins, Jenna and Barbara, faced run-ins with the law over underage possession of alcohol.

About 40 children have lived in the White House during their formative years.  It hasn’t always been easy for them. Margaret Truman, an adult when her father was in office, called the executive mansion “the Great White Jail.”  Amy Carter felt so harassed by the press that she still refuses to give interviews.  Susan Ford Bales, seventeen when her father assumed the presidency, described the White House as “a cross between a nunnery and a penitentiary.”  (She once escaped in her own car and phoned home to say she was safe.)

Nevertheless, growing up in the White House has its perks.  There’s a movie theatre, a bowling alley, unrestricted access to major events and famous people, a chance to make history, and a fully staffed 132-room mansion on 18 acres to run around in. 

That’s why Michelle Obama made it absolutely clear that “we’re going to set some boundaries” when she met with staff.  Like Susan Ford, the Obama girls will be making their own beds and doing chores.  They will no longer be giving interviews as they did with their parents once during the campaign.  And now that the inauguration is over, “mom-in-chief” has banned celebrity socializing.  As family friends told the press, she is “trying to keep them grounded” and insists they receive no special treatment. They are limited to one hour of TV a day and must be in bed by 8:30 p.m. Marian Robinson, Michelle’s mother, known to be less strict than her daughter, will continue to be the girls’ caregiver when Mrs. Obama is otherwise engaged. 

So far Malia and Sasha seem relatively unphased by their sudden fame.  When asked what was most exciting about moving into the White House, Malia told a reporter that her “most excitement about it is that I get to redecorate my room.” After Michelle Obama’s electrifying speech at the Democratic National Convention she said, “Mom, we need to have a sleepover!”  Sasha has fallen asleep during her father’s speeches.

Still, the high expectations and constant public attention that comes with being First Children can wear down any kid.  And being part of the first black family in the White House will undoubtedly draw more attention to the Obama children.  Child psychologists say it will take strong parental effort to give Malia and Sasha any semblance of normal life.  The girls, ages ten and seven, like others their age, will crave predictability and consistency, says Dr. Robyn Ostrander, Director of Child and Adolescent Services at the Brattleboro Retreat.  “Schedules and routines are important,” she says, even if occasionally they have to be changed.  Ostrander also points out that it’s important for the Obamas to “be present with their kids in the moment.” Like all parents, they need to ask themselves, what do all children need?  Are they getting enough attention from us? Do they need more time with Dad?  (Now that the Obamas are in the White House, the president eats breakfast and dinner with the family, something he couldn’t do regularly while campaigning.) Ostrander also says that having Grandma around “helps immeasurably.”

Susan Ford Bales, now chair of the Betty Ford Center, says it’s important for the Obamas to always be available to the girls.  She remembers interrupting a meeting President Ford was having with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to tell her dad that she needed her allowance and that Mrs. Ford was short of cash.  Staff to former presidents and first ladies have noted that for the most part, First Children have been “normal, active kids [who] were able to come and go and have a life” despite constant Secret Service protection. 

The media, with only a few marked lapses, has respected the privacy of young children in the White House and the Obama girls’ restricted access to TV means that they won’t know everything that is being said about them, at least for the next few years.

“Our girls are the centre of Barack’s and my world,” Michelle told the London Times in a pre-inaugural interview.  “They’re the reason he ran for president – to make the world a better place for them and for all children.  Now that Barack has been elected president, it will be an honor to be First Lady.  But, as my girls remind me, my number one job is still to be Mom. … My first priority will be to ensure they stay grounded and healthy, with normal childhoods – including homework, chores, dance and soccer.”


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Elayne Clift is a writer,lecturer, workshop leader and activist. She is senior correspondent for Women's Feature Service, columnist for the Keene (NH) Sentinel and Brattleboro (VT) Commons and a contributor to various publications internationally. (more...)
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