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Lisa Belkin Headshot

The Obamas As Parents

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I concede my lens might be skewed, but from where I sit, a fundamental point has been lost amid all the talk of the latest book about the Obamas (called, The Obamas.) So far there has been an outcry over whether author Jody Kantor really calls Michelle an Angry Black Woman (not anywhere I could find in the 358-page book) and a kerfluffle over whether Michelle squabbled with Rahm Emmanuel. (Does anyone NOT squabble with Rahm Emmanuel?)

Somehow, lost between among the accusations and headlines, is the fact that "The Obamas" is a book about parenting.

The story of the Obamas learning to be politicians is also the story of them learning to be parents. They were married in 1992; Barack began commuting to his new job as an Illinois State legislator in 1997; Malia was born in 1998; and Sasha followed in 2001. Which means that when the relatively unknown Senate candidate gave the speech that would make him an overnight sensation at the 2004 Democratic convention, his youngest child was three years old. And almost from the moment he walked off the podium after that speech, Kantor writes, Barack and Michelle have been struggling with the fact that their family would never be normal.

"They brought the girls along on their first campaign trip," days later, Kantor said in an interview, a trip that pretended to be a family vacation, complete with an RV. "Strangers wanted to see the girls, to touch them, give them cookies," she said. "The kids were celebrities." (Full disclosure: Kantor and I worked together at The New York Times.) It was the first of many times the Obamas would use Sasha and Malia to political advantage, and the first of at least a handful of times that they would second guess that choice.

Barack Obama spent the next four years commuting from Chicago to Washington as a Senator and running for President. The girls spent that time mostly in Chicago with their mother and grandmother, a sharp contrast with all the others out on the campaign trail -- specifically the Edwardses, who home-schooled their children while traveling from one appearance to the next. Sasha and Malia were seen rarely, almost never when school was in session (they famously were allowed to be a few hours late for class the morning after Election Day) and the first time the girls to be interviewed on camera -- for a July 4th edition of Access Hollywood of all places -- the backlash (you say you aren't politicizing your kids but then you grant an interview to which program?) led Barack to publicly call the decision a mistake.

The White House, then, was the first place the Obama family would live together under the same roof, seeing each other every day. They had visions of finally being a typical, average family. Michelle planned to drop the girls off at school every morning; Barack vowed to be home for dinner by 6:30 at least five days each week; the first couple would be just folks and equals in the family quarters; the girls would play on sports teams and go trick or treating and have sleepovers. Sasha and Malia would have their privacy -- that would be the top parenting priority -- and they would be kept out of politics as much as possible.

Some of that actually happened. Malia spent a summer at sleepaway camp like almost any other kid. (Though one of the perks of the presidency is that while other parents had to wait for a weekly letter from their camper for news, the Obamas got a daily report from the Secret Service agents assigned to their daughter.) Sasha played sports like any other kid, except that her basketball team had the President of the United States as an assistant coach. An intricate set of rules drawn up by the White House press office and the media meant that the girls were rarely hounded by photographers. As Kantor writes:

When the girls were alone on their private schedules, giving a concert at (school) or getting ice cream with a friend's mom, they were off-limits. Shots of them at official White House events , like the Easter Egg Roll, were fine. If the Obama daughters were traveling with their parents, they could be filmed or photographed only if a parent was in the picture too. So a picture of the president and Malia browsing in a bookstore on Martha's Vineyard was okay with the White House; a photograph of her walking the dog with Sasha was not.

Some of the Obamas best parenting intentions, on the other hand, turned out to be nonstarters. After trying to drop the girls off at school several times, Kantor writes, Michelle gave up. The simple ride meant motorcades and traffic jams and a lot of embarrassment to her daughters. An attempt to have a family friend take the girls trick or treating during their first White House Halloween didn't go well either. They were recognized at a few houses, in spite of their masks, and a crowd gathered as neighbors began alerting each other.

Mostly though, the attempts at plain-folks parenting in a decidedly non-plain-folks setting had mixed results. Yes, the president was home for dinner at 6:30 all but two nights a week, but not without grumbling from his staff that the rule isolated him from official Washington, as it kept him from being out on the town schmoozing. And yes, the First Parents stuck to their decision that the girls would make their own beds and do their own chores, but that one was easy , since the only member of the family who officially had a "butler" was the president, provided by the military.

And as for the question of how often to "use" the girls for politics, that is still an uncomfortable work in progress. The Obamas seem to believe that never would be best, but also understand that their children are a political asset (also, parents just plain like to talk about their kids...)

"The worse things are going for the administration the more you hear about the children," Kantor said. After the Gulf oil spill, Obama attempted to show he understood the national concern by saying: "I'm shaving, and Malia knocks on my bathroom door and she says 'Did you plug the hole yet Daddy?' " To express his frustration with Congress during the 2010 midterm elections he compared the Republican response to the economic crisis to Malia someday learning to drive: "These folks drove the economy into a ditch and they want the keys back. And you got to say the same thing to them that you say to your teenager: you can't have the keys because you don't know how to drive yet."

What lessons are there for the parents in this story of the First Mom and Dad?

How to sneak your child to summer camp without anyone noticing is not really of practical use to the rest of us. But the value of routine (and spontaneity) and the right to make mistakes without everyone watching, certainly are. You can't read Kantor's book without realizing how hard this one family has fought to be just as boring behind closed doors as the rest of us. So maybe that's the lesson here -- that the foundations of good parenting can by found in the things we take for granted, in the sheer luxury of normal.