How the Obamas should present their daughters to the public.

Snapshots of life at home.
Jan. 29 2009 6:28 PM

Not Dolls

How the Obamas should present their daughters to the public.

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That's why I've found a couple of the Obamas' recent moves about their kids faintly disturbing. Why release pictures from the first day of school at Sidwell Friends? Why write an open letter to the girls for publication in Parade magazine the week before the inauguration? That letter didn't seem pitched to kids of their age. And as I wrote at the time, it was a combination of stilted rhetoric ("I want all our children to go to schools worthy of their potential") and of weighting down Malia and Sasha with the burden of future service. Their father charges them with "righting the wrongs that you see and working to give others the chances you've had." Give it a rest.

At the same time, I'm not sure I want to argue that the only choice parents can make for kids who grow up in the White House is a reclusive rule of no press and no exposure at any time. It's not that I think the nation shouldn't be denied the teachable moments that will come from glimpses into our first African-American first family. Like I said, as parents, Barack and Michelle Obama are the two people in the world who should ignore that consideration. But I do wonder if keeping entirely out of the public eye isn't what the girls want themselves.

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Maybe it's a sign of our overly permissive, child-centric times to take what may be their wishes into account in this way. (Also, maybe I'm trying to excuse myself, once again, for writing about my own kids.) But once you've decided to run for president, and in the process vaulted your kids into a position as America's darlings, I'm not sure how you tell them to stay entirely out of sight. Those girls clearly reveled in waving to the crowds on Inauguration Day. In the TV interview they gave last July—the one that their father later apologized for—they betrayed traces of impatience and tiredness. After a few minutes, I wasn't really sure they wanted to be there. But I bet they were the instigators. And I do think they enjoyed puncturing their father for the world by rolling their eyes over his odd disinterest in dessert.

The Obamas are still finding their footing over how much to let the girls into public view. Meanwhile, that parenting tightrope-walk is itself the subject of endless press interest. Mine included: I share the ambivalence of Salon's Broadsheet about how much I should be peering, via photograph or video, into those girls' wide-open faces.

My hope for Sasha and Malia is that at least some of the kids they go to school with will respond to them simply as kids. Sidwell is its own D.C. fishbowl, but at least the girls are young enough to have young, relatively uncanny classmates. Or at least a few. I heard a reassuring story, third-hand, along these lines: Soon after Sasha showed up for school, the mother of one of the boys in her class couldn't resist pumping her son for details. What was the president's daughter like? His answer went something like, "I don't know. She's a girl. I don't talk to girls." That's the best news I've heard yet about Barack Obama's girls since they moved to the White House. Let's hope that it's a bubble that lasts.