As incoming President Barack Obama ponders economic-bailout plans in the Oval Office, some pretty heavy action will be taking place in the private quarters of the White House, too.
Malia and Sasha Obama, ages 10 and 7, respectively, are the youngest children to inhabit the White House in decades. And they will be facing some seismic challenges of their own, in child-development terms. The Obama girls will pass from childhood into the upheaval of the pre-teen and early teenage years in a venue that past presidential kid Luci Johnson termed a “museum, a public fishbowl and a prison.”
The loss of privacy, continuity and constancy imposed by their move to the White House — coupled with the monumental new opportunities it offers — will have a huge impact on the Obama children’s sense of identity and competence at a critical stage, child-development experts say. While the glare of the spotlight has burned some presidential kids, others have emerged unscathed and strong. A look at the risks and rewards, based on research and past examples, holds lessons for any parent raising children under unusual stress.
Malia and Sasha are facing some core “developmental tasks,” in child-development parlance: the need to build their own sense of personal identity, or their concept of who they are in relation to others and the world at large, and their belief in their competence as individuals. These growth stages must be accomplished in an ever-widening context of friendships, school, the neighborhood and the world at large.
The Obamas, child-development experts say, seem to be a picture of health, based on the deep affection and easy communication family members displayed last July in their only video interview together. Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, have vowed to hold life as steady as possible for the girls, and are taking grandmother Marian Robinson to Washington to help.
Past First Parents have varied, however, in their ability to create what Charles Figley, a Tulane University professor of social work, calls the “bubble of constancy and consistency” that such children need. Drawing on advice from uber-parent Jacqueline Kennedy, Bill and Hillary Clinton strove to create a cocoon of normalcy for Chelsea. Ms. Clinton tore apart a White House butler’s pantry to create a cozy breakfast nook, emblematic of the closeness the family sought. When Chelsea fell ill, her mother insisted on cooking her favorite comfort food, scrambled eggs. The staff, Mrs. Clinton wrote in her memoir, was “undone at the thought of a First Lady wielding a frying pan.”
At age 9, Amy Carter, in contrast, was thrust repeatedly into the spotlight. After the Carters enrolled Amy in a public school, Bonnie Angelo, author of two books on presidential families who was then a Time magazine reporter, watched the child, carrying her new Snoopy school bag, run a gantlet of photographers. She “looked miserable,” Ms. Angelo says. “To watch this little girl with her head ducked down, just wishing she could be somewhere else,” was painful.
Presidential children live in the glare of incessant public judgment. When Amy was seated by Mexico’s foreign minister at a state dinner, she read a book during the meal; the president later explained this was a family habit. But the minister “was ticked off, and he made it quite clear,” Ms. Angelo says. Bruised by overexposure, Ms. Angelo believes, Amy withdrew. To this day, she scrupulously maintains her privacy; Ms. Carter declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed.
“All children stumble. That’s the nature of childhood,” says Ann Masten, a professor of child development at the University of Minnesota. “It could be very difficult to stumble and have it make headlines all over the world.” Jacqueline Kennedy fought fiercely for her children’s right to face age-appropriate challenges and make and learn from their mistakes. She fended off Secret Service agents who wanted to ride along on five-year-old Caroline’s forays on her pony, allowing her to take her falls in private.
White House life, of course, brings vast opportunities too. Amy Carter met Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and Pope John Paul II; Chelsea Clinton met Nelson Mandela. Such rich experiences “can lead to a great sense of social awareness, duty to serve others and empathy for those less fortunate,” Dr. Figley says.
The dark side is that White House kids also face overblown expectations to achieve. Children of privilege are more vulnerable to substance abuse and depression, says a 2003 study of 302 affluent middle-school students co-written by Suniya Luthar, a psychology professor at Columbia University. Among the causes: the excessive expectations of others.
Doug Wead, an author and historian on presidential families, says, “These children of presidents are expected to do great things, and when they do, there is little reward or credit given to them. And when they don’t, they sometimes feel like failures.” His research shows a pattern of alcohol abuse and other problems among presidents’ kids.
Others, however, have managed to meet those expectations. Through the years, presidential offspring “founded colleges, wrote books, won the Medal of Honor, founded great companies, became multimillionaires, artists, actors and actresses, senators, congressmen, governors, ambassadors, cabinet officers,” Mr. Wead says. “Nine almost became presidents themselves, and two (John Quincy Adams and George W. Bush) did it.”
President Bush worried about how White House life would affect his twins, Jenna and Barbara, Mr. Wead says. In a 1997 phone conversation, Mr. Wead asked Mr. Bush if he would run for president. “He said he didn’t think so. And when I asked him why, he said, ‘Because of my daughters. They would be in college about then and it would ruin their lives,’ ” Mr. Wead recalls.
“Did it ruin your life?” Mr. Wead asked.
“No,” he says Mr. Bush replied. “It made my life.” Although the Bush twins had some teenage exploits, including Jenna’s fine for underage drinking, both have launched independent lives, Jenna as an author and teacher and Barbara most likely in a career in public health. Sally McDonough, a spokeswoman for Mrs. Bush, says, “Both the president and Mrs. Bush were very protective of their daughters, and tried to keep them from the spotlight.”
How the Obama girls fare remains to be seen. But living day-by-day with their dad, who has been commuting weekly between Chicago and Washington, poses rich benefits, child-development experts say, as will planned involvement by their grandmother. “I have a lot of confidence,” Dr. Masten says, “that this family will do a wonderful job.”