Catriona Palmer: America's first family leads way when it comes to raising children
When my son expressed reluctance recently about re-joining his soccer team for the upcoming spring season, I found myself quoting parenting expert, Michelle Obama.
"You can't bow out mid-season, kiddo," I told eight-year-old Liam. "You've committed for the entire year and you can't let your teammates down."
Not letting your kid give up when the going gets tough is a strategy plucked straight from the Obama parenting handbook: a no-nonsense guide that also recommends signing your kid up to play one team sport – an opportunity, Michelle points out, to teach children how to depend on others for victory and to accept defeat gracefully.
At dinner some nights we play a game called 'Roses and Thorns' – where every person gets to share the best and worst parts of their day – and a ritual that the Obama family partake in every night.
Call me crazy but I like how Michelle and Barack Obama are raising their kids. Their family rules make perfect sense – there's no television or internet surfing on school nights, the kids must make their beds, clean their rooms and eat their vegetables and Malia, the eldest, must learn how to do her laundry before she leaves for college in a few years' time.
"They're not little princesses," the first lady, who this week was voted one of America's most trusted individuals by 'Reader's Digest', said. "It's just basic rules, boundaries, and expectations that we would have normally."
The Obamas' commonsense strategy seems to be paying off. Malia (14) and Sasha (11) genuinely seem like nice kids – poised, well-mannered and surprisingly normal – despite the perks that living in a mansion with 93 household staff and a massive security detail bring.
A few months ago I attended a private dinner in Washington and sat next to a senior administration aide who sees the Obama girls on a daily basis.
"They really are great kids," the aide told me. "There are no airs, no graces. What you see is what you get. The first lady and president have done a great job."
Next month, while Barack Obama attends the G8 summit in Enniskillen, Michelle Obama is plotting a girl's trip south of the Border with Malia and Sasha. The visit will be the Obama girls' first chance to visit their ancestral home in Moneygall, Co Offaly, and a long-awaited opportunity for the Irish public to see up close the most famous teen and tween in the world.
The family pilgrimage to Moneygall will be purely vacation time but there'll be a serious component, too.
Once they return home, the girls will be expected to write up a report on their visit to Ireland – a task they must complete for their parents after every overseas trip.
Before she moved into the White House in January 2009, Michelle Obama declared that her biggest priority during her husband's presidency would be her kids.
"My first job in all honesty is going to continue to be mom-in-chief," she said. Mr Obama may have passed up on campaign promises to close the Guantanamo Bay detention centre and to repeal tax cuts, but he and the first lady have stuck admirably to their pledge to stand by and protect their kids.
With the co-operation of the White House press corps, the couple have worked hard to keep the girls out of the public spotlight, controlling heavily the images of the girls that appear in the media. Such limitations have prompted grumblings that the White House is trying to have it both ways – shielding the girls from the public while also using them in carefully orchestrated moments to bolster their father's political image.
IT is a strategy, however, that has reaped dividends. In a bipartisan political sport where even politician's kids are fair game for criticism, the Obama girls have risen above the fray and even the most rabid Republicans seem to have grudging respect towards the Obamas for their parenting style.
Michelle Obama's only goal now is to get through the next three-and-a-half years without putting a major parental foot wrong.
"They're terrific girls. They're poised and they're kind and they're curious," the first lady said recently. "Like any mother, I am just hoping that I don't mess them up.
"Even when times are tough, in the end you are as happy as your least happy child."