The first thing Michelle told White House staff ... Please don't spoil my kids!
Published 20/05/2011 | 05:00
With police motorcades to ferry you around, burly Secret Service agents to ward off schoolyard bullies, a swimming pool and movie theatre for play dates, and chefs on hand 24/7 to rustle up whatever takes your fancy, a childhood spent in the White House can be a dream come true.
But not so in the Obama household.
When Malia (12) and Sasha Obama (10) moved from Chicago to Washington in January 2009, their mother Michelle said that her top priority was "making sure that they have their feet on the ground".
The self-styled Mum-in-Chief moved not only the family's furniture and belongings from Chicago: she also brought the list of rules and chores that had defined Obama family life before her husband became president.
On her first visit to the White House after the historic election of 2008, Michelle Obama warned the executive mansion staff that her children were not to be spoiled or coddled.
"That was the first thing I said to some of the staff when I did my visit," the first lady said.
"Don't make their beds. Make mine. Skip the kids. They have to learn these things."
In America's high-powered capital where many children are indulged needlessly by hovering 'helicopter' parents, the Obamas have adopted a no-nonsense style of parenting that seems -- thus far -- to have produced well-mannered, compassionate and humble children.
On school nights in the executive mansion, the girls go to bed early, set their own alarms and get themselves up in the mornings.
They dutifully complete their weekly list of chores: taking Bo the dog for a walk, scooping up his poop, cleaning their rooms and making their beds.
Malia, who will turn 13 shortly, is learning how to do her own laundry. "She has to learn how to do that," said Michelle Obama last month.
"I don't want her to be 15, 16 and be the kid that says: 'I've never done laundry before.' I would cringe if she became that kid.
"As I tell them, they will not live in the White House forever," she said.
The Obama children are not allowed to have mobile phones. And with a mother dedicated to enhancing childhood nutrition, complaints about what's on the menu are strictly off limits.
Michelle has "no problem telling her girls that if they don't like what's being served for lunch, then they'll be good and hungry for dinner," said Melinda Henneberger of Slate Magazine.
On the road for years prior to winning the White House, Obama now relishes the luxury of "living above the shop" and the stability it offers his young family.
"It turns out I've got this nice home office," Obama said shortly after moving into the White House.
"And at the end of the day, yeah, I can come home, even if I've got more work to do, I can have dinner with them. I can help them with their homework. I can tuck them in. If I've got to go back to the office, I can."
Before their term started (in January 2009), the Obamas set aside their political differences with Bill and Hillary Clinton to seek their opinions on how to protect their children's privacy and keep them from becoming self-absorbed and spoiled.
"It is a very strange way to live a life and raise a family, and that was always their concern going into the campaign," Richard Wolffe, author of 'Renegade: The Making of a President' and an NBC political analyst, told the Irish Independent. "They were very interested in knowing what it would be like to raise kids in the gilded cage of the White House. Their daughters will be spending their teenage years in the fishbowl."
Despite their careful planning however, Wolffe -- who covered the Obama campaign up-close for 21 months -- said that life in the White House has been "double-edged" for the first family, as they have struggled to balance the obvious luxuries with the stifling constraints of their new life.
Because their parents cannot leave the confines of the White House without a blaring presidential motorcade, it is left to other relatives to take the girls out for shopping excursions to the bookstore or mall. Family weekends are spent in the White House playing tennis or scrabble or watching movies with friends.
But despite the restrictions, the Obamas have shown "a sustained effort at being normal parents", said Wolffe.
In the midst of running the country, the president has found the time to attend every parent teacher conference at Sidwell Friends, the children's $32,000-a-year Washington school, and even to coach Sasha's school basketball team.
And with nearly three years spent in the White House, and everyone that little bit older, the first couple have had to adjust to the reality of their daughters entering the murky world of teenagehood.
Barack Obama may be cool and collected when faced with issues of national security, said his wife, but when it comes to his little girls growing up, the president finds it hard to keep it together.
"He says he's cool, but you know the first time Malia went out for a party and she was dressed -- she had her hair done and she's tall, she had on a pretty dress -- you could see him. He was sort of like . . . gulp. And I was like, 'Easy dad. It's only the beginning'," she said recently.
Irish Independent Supplement