Pressure on Obama daughters to be role models
Malia Obama, 10, and her sister Sasha, 6, enjoy the spotlight as their dad, President-elect Barack Obama, addresses the huge crowd gathered at Grant Park in Chicago to hear him speak about winning the presidential election. (Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune / November 4, 2008)
But next week, when they officially become America's first daughters, they will join an elite group of young people to grow up in the White House and spend their formative years in public view.
While Barack and Michelle Obama likely will try to shield their children from the media, as have most presidents and first ladies, many young girls will look to them for fashion trends, study habits and tips for surviving the difficult transition from childhood to teenagers.
"They will be role models for kids, particularly African-American kids who will look up to them," said Nadine Kaslow, chief psychologist at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. "There will be lots of pressure on them because they are African-American, pressure to excel academically, not to get into trouble and to behave appropriately."
With the Obama girls in the spotlight, 8-year-old Kathryn Rodgers of Bolingbrook said she feels more comfortable as one of only a handful of blacks in her Naperville school.
"I wear my hair natural sometimes, so I kind of know what it's like," said Kathryn, a 3rd grader. "When I see their hair natural, it makes me feel like I'm not the only one wearing my hair like that as a brown-skinned girl."
No children in previous administrations were expected to be role models, according to Sanford Kanter, a history professor at San Jacinto Community College in Houston. Their challenge was to act as normal citizens and not bring any shame upon the president.
"Good children from good homes in America have been the role models for the presidential children instead of the reverse," said Kanter. "The fame and goldfish-bowl life of presidential children is thus seen as a negative, and it becomes the duty of the president and spouse and the Secret Service to cocoon the children as much as possible."
But it is impossible to shield them entirely from public attention. Amy Carter went through a klutzy stage that included wearing braces. Jenna and Barbara Bush faced public embarrassment for underage drinking, something other young people could deal with in private.
"Malia will almost be through her teens in eight years [assuming Obama serves two terms], and these are really tough years because she is going to have to mature with all their zits and everything else, not just before the country but before the world," said Sandra Quinn-Musgrove, author of "America's Royalty: All the President's Children."
The Obama girls became media darlings long before moving into the White House. They have appeared on the covers of People Magazine and Us Weekly. The $110 red dress that Malia wore on election night flew off the racks at Nordstrom. And photos of them--trick-or-treating, eating ice cream at a food court in Hawaii and heading off for the first day of school--are all over the Internet.
The world knows that Malia plans to write her school essays in the Lincoln bedroom because she feels it will inspire her, that the girls get a $1 a week allowance and that they will have to make their own beds in the White House.
"Since the last time there were younger kids in the White House, we have become a nation obsessed [with] celebrity kids right from birth," said Karen Bokram, publisher and founding editor of Girls' Life magazine. "There has always been a fascination with presidential little ones, and they are what sells on the cover of [celebrity] magazines. Only someone who just died or Angelina [Jolie] sells better."
The Obama girls so far have set a good example--being courteous, studious and athletic--and they, like most girls their age, appear to be committed to making their parents proud. But it will be a challenge for them to live up to public expectations.
"The pressure to do well and make your parents proud is universal. It doesn't matter whether your dad is the postman or the president," said Bokram. "But if these girls don't get straight A's, find a cure for cancer or play first chair in violin, we as a nation are going to be disappointed."
Nine-year-old Amira Williams of suburban Atlanta said she likes that the Obama girls are smart and articulate and that they wear clothes that are "very elegant and nice colors."
"I'm very smart and some people say I am very articulate, so I can relate to them," said Amira, a 4th grader. "I also have really good fashion sense. I like to go to Macy's."
Indya Thomas of Newnan, Ga., was excited when she was selected to play the role of Malia in the Black History Month play at her church. It is a small role, but Thomas, 10, has been practicing walking across the stage and waving.
"They're special because they are the first black girls to be in the White House," said Thomas, a 5th grader. "They are my age and it's kind of like me going to the White House."
The Obama girls provide an excellent alternative to young girls who want to pattern their behavior and dress after music celebrities, said Jacqueline Moore Bowles, national president of Jack and Jill of America, a youth leadership organization.
"Our children will get a sense of self-esteem from looking at these girls," said Bowles. "They seem to be proud of who they are, and it's great that they have parents who allow them to be themselves." email@example.com