THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Lesson From Barack (and Malia) Obama

I know this isn't nice, but I was secretly pleased when the President outed Malia for getting a C on her science test. As a parent I found the news immensely reassuring. Why, the elder First Daughter has as much trouble juggling homework, sports and her social life as my kids do! I marveled.

Granted, Malia lives in a much grander house and vacations in places like Russia as opposed to spending the day at the local grubby beach. If she needs one mom and dad also won't have to pony up $50 an hour for an algebra tutor.

But she also has the Secret Service accompanying her to sleepovers and nosing around her Facebook page (Like she probably even has one. Remember Dad's fight to keep his BlackBerry?). And she's under enormous pressure to succeed in school, all while living under a
microscope every second.

It can't always be fun having a dad who's President, a best-selling author and a Nobel Laureate. Not to mention one who occasionally spills your secrets to the entire world. (Thanks, Dad!) Then there's mom, a crack organic gardener, international style icon, Harvard Law grad, who's as popular as Taylor Swift. How's an 11-year-old to top that?

Appropriately enough the occasion for this betrayal was an education speech at a charter middle school in Madison, Wisconsin. The President was spelling out what schools need to do to win grants from the Department of Education's $4.35-billion "Race to the Top" fund. He wasn't in a particularly forgiving mood. Referring to public schools, he said there should be "no excuse for mediocrity."

Given Dad's high expectations, maybe the C wasn't entirely surprising. It certainly wasn't terrible. (Although I would have hated to be Malia when she told her parents. You know how the President gets that stern look.) As it turns out, Malia quickly bounced back, earning 95 on her very next test.

Here's how Dad explained her turnaround in the Los Angeles Times: "What was happening was she had started wanting it more than us."

And that's the real lesson I think parents should absorb from this. That no matter what your ambitions are as a parent, you can't control how motivated your children are or what they achieve. It has to come from them.

I learned this the hard way. Despite making sure my kids did their homework in elementary school, going online to check their assignments in middle school, emailing their teachers when there was a problem in high school, all the while trying not to be the noxious helicopter parent, they occasionally did not meet my standards of excellence.

In middle school I remember lining up in the cafeteria to talk with my son's teachers about his "progress report." Talk about the line of shame. It was a dreadful ritual. Invariably I'd be right behind the parent whose 13-year-old had perfect citizenship and straight A's. All of which I'd have to hear about while my son looked around anxiously and fidgeted. Knowing that he did not have such grades. Knowing that I'd be angry with his Bs and Cs and missing assignments.

I did not see then that my son, with his ADHD, his charming personality, his prowess at skateboarding and music, had other gifts. Gifts that his overcrowded public school and overtaxed teachers did not necessarily appreciate, much less have the resources to cultivate. I had to accept that he was probably not bound for Oxford.

My daughter has hit similar bumps in her academic career. Last year it was the dreaded English poet Milton that did her in. "I hate poetry," she would fume every night, as she sat poring over phrases in Middle English. "I don't understand it. I don't get why we have to learn this." Her teacher, who could not get enough of Milton, alas, was not particularly sympathetic. Thank goodness she's taking women's studies this semester!

This month she's sending out her college applications. Like a good parent, I'm trying not to ask, "So, how's that essay coming?" every five minutes. A few months ago she broke the news that she would not be applying to Berkeley, her mother's beloved alma mater. "I'm sorry to disappoint you, mom, but I don't want to go to a school where I'm too stressed out." (Not incidentally, we've had similar conversations about the fact she will not be entering journalism, like her parents. Which only goes to show how smart she is.)

My daughter is not me. What a shock. And I suppose this goes without saying, but neither is my son. If I can get out of their way and let them make mistakes, learn from them, grow up, they'll both forge their own distinctive paths.

Just as Malia Obama will, Dad.