Growing up in the White House fishbowl

In less than a week’s time Malia and Sasha Obama will move into one of the world’s most coveted residences, thrust right back into the unrelenting glare of the global spotlight after a brief respite.

“One of the worst things in the world is being the child of a president. It’s a terrible life they lead,” Franklin D Roosevelt once said, even though his five surviving children were mostly grown when he became president in 1933.

The Obama girls—Malia (10) and Sasha (7)—who captured hearts as they accompanied their father, Barack Obama, on the campaign trail, will be the youngest kids living in the White House since the Kennedys in the early 1960s.

There are few youngsters who can invite their friends to sleepovers and birthday parties in a home that has its own bowling alley, cinema and theatre, or just for a mega-game of hide-and-seek in a house with more than 130 rooms.

Yet despite such privileges the girls could find it hard to escape the public eye and enjoy the freedom of just growing up in today’s 24-hour, fast-wired world of camera-phones and YouTube.

President-elect Obama and his wife, Michelle, have said one of their top concerns is ensuring their daughters’ well-being.

“Right now they’re not self-conscious ... they don’t have an attitude.
And I think one of our highest priorities, over the next four years, is retaining that,” Obama said recently.

The incoming first lady has said the girls are not to be spoiled and must stick to their routine of making their own beds and keeping their rooms tidy, with lights out at 8.30pm.

Since their dad won the November 4 election and vowed to make good on his promise that they could have a dog, the girls have mostly been kept out of the public eye.

Even their first day at their new school, Sidwell Friends, in early January was kept low-key, fueling speculation the usually omnipresent camera crews had agreed to stay away.

“First children are kind of like the country’s first pets, their mascots, and they like to watch what they do and become fascinated with them,” historian Robert Watson told AFP.

“There’s enough pressure on kids day to day, but I couldn’t imagine what it would be like for my kids, for example, every pimple being shown in the National Inquirer or revealed by Entertainment Tonight.

“Inevitably, one of the girls will flunk a test and then the whole country will all know about it.”

Once children played freely in the White House corridors. Abraham Lincoln’s two sons plagued staff by constantly ringing the bells to summon them. One of Theodore Roosevelt’s children once rode a pony into the iconic building.

Even John F Kennedy’s son, known affectionately as John-John, was captured in a photograph playing at his father’s feet underneath the Oval Office desk.

“Lincoln and Roosevelt kind of featured their kids and did so in a way that endeared them to the whole country and gave Abe and Teddy this image of the father of the country. A paternalistic Santa Claus,” said Watson, coordinator of American studies at Lynn University.

But amid modern pressures and the growth of the media, first families have begun fiercely shielding their children from prying eyes.

Bill and Hillary Clinton were notoriously protective of their only daughter, Chelsea, who moved into the White House as a gawky 12-year-old and was at times the butt of some cruel television jokes.

To this day, Chelsea (28) refuses all media interviews even though she blossomed last year in the public eye when she took leave from her high-paying finance job to shine on the campaign trail for her mother.

Amy Carter had a tree house in the White House grounds, and sleepovers guarded by secret service staff.

But by all accounts, the little girl who grew up to become a political activist had a relatively lonely childhood in the White House confines. Today she lives quietly with her husband and young son.

It remains to be seen whether 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will ever feel like home for the Obama girls, even though they can decorate their bedrooms with posters of their favourite boy band The Jonas Brothers.

Jenna Bush, who with her twin sister Barbara was already at university when their father George Bush took office in 2001, last year eschewed a rare White House wedding in favour of a private ceremony at the family ranch in Crawford, Texas.

“I did live in Washington,” Jenna told MSNBC, “but I never lived in the White House.

“Texas is home to me.” - AFP

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