NEW YORK — When Rabbi Shmuley Boteach brought his children to play with Michael Jackson's kids at Neverland Ranch some eight years ago, the rabbi's youngsters naturally made a beeline for the fabulous rides _ the Ferris wheel, the roller coaster, the bumper cars.
But when Jackson's own kids asked to go on the rides, he gently reminded them of the family rules, according to Boteach: The rides were only for birthdays or special occasions. "He was very concerned that the kids grow up with the right values," says Boteach, Jackson's former friend and spiritual adviser.
They are the children of one of the most famous men to have walked the planet. But unlike other children of mega-celebrities, whose faces are recognizable around the world, those of Jackson's three kids _ 12-year-old Michael Joseph Jr., known as Prince Michael; 11-year-old Paris Michael Katherine; and 7-year-old Prince Michael II, known as Blanket _ are barely known.
Home-schooled and often isolated in mansions or hotels, the children have appeared only in rare paparazzi shots, their faces usually covered by scarves or brightly colored masks.
That fact alone _ that Jackson sought to hide his children's faces _ would seem to speak of a dark, strange life. But those who've witnessed the family up close paint a brighter picture: a trio of engaging, intelligent, well-adjusted youngsters who adored their father. A father who, despite his eccentricities and the terrible controversy that surrounded him in later life, lived for his children and tried to make their lives as normal as _ well, as normal as Michael Jackson could.
"To the extent that Michael Jackson's kids COULD have a normal life, he wanted them to have it," says Boteach, who eventually fell out with Jackson.
"Listen, I'm not here to whitewash the sins of Michael Jackson _ he was accused of some abominable things," says the rabbi, referring to the pop star's trial and acquittal on molestation charges. "But when it came to being a father, there was much to admire."
Dr. Tohme Tohme, a close friend and adviser to Jackson over the last year of his life, said he had "never seen a better father."
"He was the father and the mother," Tohme said. "He washed them and dressed them. I'm a father but I'm not sure I could do what he was doing with his children. They loved him so much."
Of course, even Jackson's closest friends are at a loss to explain what for many is the single most memorable image of Jackson as a father: the shocking moment when he dangled Blanket, then an infant, over a hotel balcony in Berlin, showing the baby off to fans with a delighted grin.
"What made that incident so inexplicable was that he was an OVER-protective father," Boteach says.
Others who've been close to Jackson in the past agree. When the children stayed in hotels, says one photographer who spent several years working for Jackson, his handlers had long lists of all the foods the children could and could not eat. He was afraid of allergies but also poisoning, says the photographer, Ian Barkley. At the ranch, Jackson would not let the children roam far for fear of coyotes, he says.
When Barkley spoke to the kids himself, he was impressed. "Paris and (the older) Prince really blew me away with how smart they were. They were really well-mannered and nice." And Jackson made sure they kept up with their studies. "Once I heard him ask the nanny if the kids had done their homework that day, and they hadn't yet and he was really not happy."
Yet Jackson also indulged his children in extravagances _ he was known to rent out entire movie theaters so he and his kids could see a first-run movie in peace, said close friend Uri Geller, the entertainer, who accompanied the family on one such outing.
"The times I've seen Michael with his kids, he was simply a great father," says Geller. "When I saw him alone in London, the first thing he said is how much he missed them. I know he loved them, and they loved him."
US Weekly editor Janice Min, whose magazine reported on Jackson's children this week, was surprised to discover how positive an outlook many Jackson associates had on the kids and their lives. "I would have thought it was a very gloom-and-doom picture, but across the board, everyone talked about these nice and seemingly normal kids," she says.
Still, for many people, the hardest thing to get past about Jackson's parenting style was those facial disguises. Geller, for one, is convinced the family saw it as a game. "It was a private joke on the media between Michael and the kids _ the kids loved it," Geller says. "That's what Michael told me."
But others speak of more serious reasons. Stacy Brown, a former Jackson family confidant who fell out with the family at the time of the 2005 molestation trial _ he was a prosecution witness _ says Michael was truly afraid of kidnapping. But also, Brown notes, there was a strategy: If the kids wore masks when they were with Jackson, they could go safely unmasked when they weren't with him.
Still, says Brown, who co-wrote "The Man Behind the Mask," a Jackson biography, "mentally, it was just not right. Why put a mask on these beautiful children?"
There may be another, more poignant reason. "He detested the media interest in whether he looked like his children," says Boteach, the rabbi. "I think that was another concern. Those rumors were hurtful to them."
Such discussion has only increased since Jackson's death, as the world wonders not only who will get custody of the children but also whether Jackson is their biological father. Jackson's ex-wife, Deborah Rowe, the mother of the two older children, says the children were conceived by artificial insemination. The surrogate mother of the youngest has not been revealed.
For now, Rowe is weighing whether to seek custody of her two children, while Katherine Jackson, the singer's 79-year-old mother, has temporary guardianship of all three. Jackson's will asks that permanent custody go to his mother.
Brown, the biographer, recalls running into Jackson and the kids in a town near Neverland shortly before the trial.
"They were the most well-behaved, well-mannered, immaculately groomed children," Brown says. "It was all 'please' and 'thank you,' and 'excuse me.' Little Blanket was wearing a kilt, and Prince a three-piece suit, and Paris a white dress with blue flowers. We chatted. I'm telling you, the guy was tremendous with those kids."
Whatever happens, Boteach says, it was Jackson's greatest wish that his children know how much he loved them.
"Michael often said he knew that when the kids grew up, they'd be asked by biographers what kind of father he was," Boteach says. "He wanted the kids to know that he always put them first."
AP Special Correspondent Linda Deutsch contributed to this report.