RSS
Briefing: Growing up in the ‘Great White Jail’
Malia and Sasha Obama will be youngest kids to live in the White House since Amy Carter. Can you have a true childhood when Dad is the president?
 

Malia and Sasha Obama will be youngest kids to live in the White House since Amy Carter. Can you have a true childhood when Dad is the president?

What’s it like to grow up in the White House?
It’s a unique experience—wonderful in some ways, awful in others. First, there’s the sheer size and grandeur of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.—a 132-room mansion, complete with a bowling alley and movie theater, set on 18 lush acres. A 90-member executive staff, including a team of chefs, caters to every whim, while the Secret Service is never more than a few yards away. Then there’s the intense public interest in First Families, especially when young children are part of the tableau. “American families see a mirror of themselves in presidents and their families,” says White House historian Bill Bushong. Because a black First Family is a historical breakthrough, he says, the Obama girls will attract even more relentless attention.

How will that affect them?
It will certainly take a lot of parental effort to give them a semblance of a “normal” life. Child psychologists say it’s crucial that 7-year-old Sasha and 10-year-old Malia have the sort of simple routines—such as meals with their parents and time devoted to homework—that allow kids to feel grounded. Indeed, Barack and Michelle Obama already have indicated that the girls would be expected to pick up after themselves. “That was the first thing I said to some of the staff when I did my White House visit,” Michelle Obama said last week. “I said, ‘We’re gonna have to set up some boundaries. Let ’em make their own beds.’” Still, the girls will face some special challenges.

What can go wrong?
It’s difficult for the president’s children to act their own age in the White House, where they are trotted out to meet visiting heads of state, attend glitzy parties, and face the pressures of serving as role models for children everywhere. “Sasha and Malia are most vulnerable to people seeing them as older than they are,” says psychologist Irene Swerdlow-Freed. “They still have the needs of young children, but they will be presented all dressed up in ballrooms. We all grow up feeling everyone is focused on us and analyzing us, but in their situation, everyone is focused on them.”

How have other White House kids fared?
It hasn’t been easy. The scrutiny can be harsh and at times cruel. Nellie Grant was 13 when her father, Ulysses, moved into the White House, in 1869—just as she was blossoming into a young woman. “To the outrage of her parents,” says Doug Wead, author of All the Presidents’ Children, “word spread that the president’s daughter was turning out to be an especially well-endowed young lady.” Nellie was mortified. One of President John Tyler’s daughters had been chubby as a child; for the rest of her life she was known as “Fat Alice.” In more recent times, 13-year-old Chelsea Clinton’s looks were ridiculed on Saturday Night Live, and George W. Bush’s twin girls, Barbara and Jenna, who were 19 when Bush was inaugurated, became the butt of innumerable jokes over their partying and underage drinking. “It’s the articles that are written,” says Susan Ford Bales, who was 17 when Gerald Ford became president, “the critical letters that you get from people who don’t even know you.”

Is there a positive side for the kids?
Absolutely. Life in the White House can seem like a fairy tale come to life. The kids largely have free rein on the second and third floors of the White House, and usually are given their choice of bedrooms. Malia and Sasha will likely bunk in the East (also known as the Yellow) and West (Blue) bedrooms. (The Yellow room was used by Caroline Kennedy, Amy Carter, and Chelsea Clinton, while the Blue one housed John Kennedy Jr. and was Amy’s playroom and Ronald Reagan’s gym.) The rooms are connected by a closet hall. Imagine how impressed their friends will be during sleepovers (once they clear security, that is). If the past is any indication, the girls will have plenty of fun. Abraham Lincoln’s 7-year-old son, Tad, tooled around the White House in a kid-sized Union uniform and would “bomb” the Cabinet room with a toy cannon. Teddy Roosevelt’s 4-year-old son, Quentin, liked to roller-skate down the hallways; he once ran a toy wagon through a priceless White House portrait. “John-John” Kennedy loved to hide under his father’s Oval Office desk, and would sometimes pop out when JFK was conducting important business.

What about security?
There’s a reason Harry Truman’s daughter, Margaret, called the executive mansion “the Great White Jail.” Especially for teenagers, the constant presence of the Secret Service—at home, in school, and yes, on dates—can become insufferable. Alice Roosevelt, Teddy’s rebellious teenage daughter, would sneak up to the White House roof to smoke, drove recklessly, and otherwise raised hell. “I can either run the country,” Roosevelt once quipped, “or I can control Alice.” Susan Ford got so fed up that she actually once ditched her security detail, taking off in her car and causing a minor national security crisis until she called home to say she was fine. Ford has described the White House as “a cross between a nunnery and a penitentiary.” Still, she says, it was all worth it. Not too many other kids can boast that they hosted their high school prom—in the East Room of the White House.

Learning from Amy
Presidential scholars agree that the Obamas would be well-advised to learn some lessons from the Carter family. Amy Carter, by all accounts, did not enjoy her four years in the White House. She was just 9 when she moved in, and the media speculated endlessly about everything from her choice of friends to her habit of reading books during state dinners. Jimmy Carter exacerbated the problem by frequently dragging her into the spotlight. He made a symbolic point of sending her to a public school, where she was not always fully shielded from the press, and sometimes brought her along to economic and foreign summits. “Mr. President, it’s not that we don’t like Amy,” wrote columnist Georgie Anne Geyer, in 1980. “She is well-mannered and seems a very nice girl. But next time, leave the poor kid home.” Amy, now 41, lives in self-chosen obscurity outside Atlanta; she so hated growing up in a fishbowl that to this day she refuses to give interviews to anyone for any reason.

 

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week