Page last updated at 10:14 GMT, Thursday, 22 January 2009

Spotlight shines brighter on Obama's girls

JF Kennedy with his children in the White House
John F Kennedy claps along while his children dance in the Oval Office

By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News

Hollywood actress Anne Hathaway has said she wants to babysit them, while heart-throb musician Nick Jonas described them as "very sweet girls".

America has become besotted with the latest occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave: seven-year-old Sasha and 10-year-old Malia. Their move into the White House has thrust them into the unrelenting glare of the global spotlight.

The Obama girls' first day at school
First day of school: Even their menu was published in the media
Welcome to life in the White House "fishbowl".

The girls have already attained celebrity status, gracing the cover of People magazine three times along with their parents.

The parenting blog, parentdish, has raised the possibility that the youngsters might replace "Hannah Montana and other teen starlets as girlhood role models".

Barack Obama himself cast them as role models in an open letter to his daughters published in mass-market magazine Parade, ahead of his inauguration. In it, he revealed his hopes and dreams for his daughters, and for "every child" in America.

But a blog in the online magazine Slate questioned whether Mr Obama wasn't playing the family card to the disadvantage of his children.

"By doing it in public, doesn't he put a huge burden on them, adding to the one they're already shouldering?" it asked.


President Obama and self-declared mom-in-chief Michelle have vowed to protect the children's privacy while in the White House.

Malia and Sasha Obama
"These are the things I want for you - to grow up in a world with no limits on your dreams and no achievements beyond your reach, and to grow into compassionate, committed women who will help build that world. And I want every child to have the same chances to learn and dream and grow and thrive that you girls have. That's why I've taken our family on this great adventure. "

"And so they should," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

"Youngsters can be overburdened by the pressure of their position," says the professor, who has taught children of governors, senators and one presidential child.

He says that despite the fascination, the US media do largely respect the privacy of the first children.

Families with young children can transform the White House and the Obamas have clearly brought a new spirit to Washington, he adds.

"There is an expectation, a great positive feeling towards the family, and hope that this marks a turning point.

"It reminds people of the Kennedys, who succeeded the oldest president in US history [at that time]," he says.

Child-friendly Kennedys

John F Kennedy Jr - known as America's Son - used to hide under his father's Oval Office desk as he worked, while his older sister Caroline used to ride her pony Macaroni around the White House grounds.

John Jr called the spot under his father's desk his home

That the president loved watching his children play is evident from a famous photo of the children dancing in the Oval Office as their father clapped along.

But such pictures were few and far between, as Jacqueline Kennedy - who had researched the lives of earlier first children - worked hard to keep John Jr and Caroline away from the public glare.

She advised Bill and Hillary Clinton to ensure Chelsea led a full life outside the White House. The Clintons were extremely protective of their daughter, although she did end up at times the butt of some cruel TV jokes.

Mrs Obama - who in turn has sought advice about the White House home front from Mrs Clinton - has said her first priority will be to ensure the girls remain "grounded" with normal childhoods, including making their own beds, going to ballet classes and playing soccer.

How normal is normal?

But how normal can life be for children growing up in what has been described by former occupants as a museum, a fishbowl and a prison? Luci Baines Johnson reportedly hated her role as first child and has said she was desperately looking to be normal.

Amy Carter met many important people at the White House - click here to find out who

"The girls will have a wonderful time - the White House has lots of nooks and crannies for them to play in, it's very old and great fun," says Mary Finch Hoyt, former press secretary to Rosalynn Carter.

The house is spread over 55,000 square feet and boasts its own movie theatre and 18 acres of land. And, given that they will literally be "living above the store", they are likely to see more of their father than they did when he was working away from home as a senator.

Amy Carter was the first young child in the White House since the Kennedys and excited much media interest.

For example, the unveiling of her tree house - which she designed with her father Jimmy - drove the press into a frenzy, says Ms Hoyt.

"I was besieged by requests from the press for the photos and the blueprint to the tree house. At the same time, Mrs Carter was trying to highlight the issues of young people at a children's home in the city, but the press didn't want to know."

Despite the interest, Amy was able to lead a normal life, says Mrs Hoyt.

"She made lots of friends at school and had them over to the White House - including for sleepovers."

Bush twins' advice

This week Malia and Sasha received advice from the Bush twins about how to enjoy their new home.

Bill and Chelsea Clinton at the White House
Jacqueline Kennedy advised the Clintons to protect Chelsea's privacy

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Jenna and Barbara recounted fond memories of their days in the White House, starting at the age seven when their grandfather was president.

Recalling that they first saw the White House "through the innocent, optimistic eyes of children", the twins wrote: "Our seven-year-old imaginations soared as we played in the enormous, beautiful rooms; our dreams, our games, as romantic as her surroundings."

There is little doubt growing up in the White House brings enormous opportunities and privileges. But it can also bring its burdens. For Sasha and Malia, the weight of being cast as role models will be even greater because they are the first African-American presidential children.

"What we are seeing portrayed in the media are little black girls who are respected and cared for - it's not an image we often see," says Tarshia Stanley, associate professor at Spelman College, a historically black college for women in Atlanta.

The professor, who teaches a course in images of black women, says Michelle Obama "will need to be careful the girls are not seen as icons - particularly in an age where there is an obsession with visual representations of people".

"She will need to ensure the girls are not seen as some version of Disney stars."

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