When I was a child, dinners were accompanied by my mother’s mantra. Chanted so often it runs through my mind even now it went something like, “Clean your plate, there are chilren starving in (name the region: China, Africa, India).” My mother was not, I’m sure, as concerned about the fate of starving children as she was the eating habits of her daughter. “Eat your broccoli, or brussel sprouts, or lima beans, they’re good for you,” she might otherwise have pressured. But wise to me, she knew guilt was a better instrument of influence.
She understood I would feel uneasy at the image of a child with nothing on her plate. And it worked, in a way. I did, often enough, ‘clean my plate’ to the point that in later years I came to understand another consequence of such diligence is a greater caloric intake than most of us need. I now work at ignoring my mother’s mantra, putting half aside to ‘clean up’ later.
So I was captivated as I wanted Barbara Walters interview the Obamas back in December. Michele Obama, relating a conversation with the White House staff said, “I’ve already told them that the children will have chores and will be making their own beds.”
Walters seemed genuinely taken aback. “Making their beds, In the White House?” she repeated back as in shock and awe. “Well they do it at home,” Mama Obama relied, “Why not in the White House?” And there it was, the first gift of the First Mama to parents everywhere.
I can hear the new mantra come January 21. Little Susie Smith blithely leaves her bedroom as she has done for some time, clothes scattered, bed undone, ready to catch the bus. When her mother asks, “Have you made the bed?” Susie rolls her eyes and answers, “Oh mom, I don’t have time.” This exchange as worked for years. Susie and Mom have their pattern n. Mom sighs, lets Susie sachet out the door and another teaching moment passes.
But today is different, Today, Susie’s mom is ready. “Well young lady, if the kids in the White House have to make their beds, I guess you can too. Hurry up now!” And Susie, shocked at this new world order, turns around and inexpertly pulls the covers up. She doesn’t understand squared corners yet. But that new refrain. “If the children in the White House have to…” is going to usher in a of of new skills and expectations for Susie and her friends.
Or at least that’s the possibility. Parents who missed the gift Michelle Obama offered up in that oh so light and lovely holiday interview, would do well to go back and view it on YouTube. She clearly signaled that one of her Chief Tasks as a First Parent would be to model a no-nonsense approach to nurturing responsibility in children. And anyone noticing the glimpses we’ve gotten of the First Girls, Malia and Sasha, has to think that Michele and Barrack walk their talk when it comes to expecting their children to be respectful, responsible, helpful.
No doubt there are and have been children’s meltdowns in ObamaWorld. Surely these are not perfect children. But families who want their children to be happy–and responsible; without anxiety and disciplined, could do worse than adopt some of the ‘brook no nonsense’ mindset the Obamas project. The guy who promises ‘adult supervision for Wall Street’ no doubt knows how to offer it up at home.
Here are a few things to add to your ‘if the children in the White House have to…’ list:
- “If the children in the White House have to…manage an allowance, you can too.” Do I know that Sasha and Malia are managing an allowance? No. Will I be surprised to learn they are–or will be? No. But whether they do or not, this is an opportunity to reinforce values like ‘living within our means;’ stewardship; saving; and generosity. Consider creating a en economic mission statement for the family–one your kids can help shape and learn to live by. Leverage is an important business; one that kids can learn early on–but the pit-falls of being ‘over-leveraged’ is a concept kids need to understand well before they leave for college. Over the last few months, I’ve been intrigued (and worried) with how often, when asked, teens will tell me that the current economic melt-down has nothing to do with them.’ No doubt their parents are trying to protect them from anxiety. But these children may be missing one of the most important teaching moment of their young lives. Letting kids think that a decline in the family next egg, no matter how ‘relative’ has ‘nothing to do with them’ is dishonest. Allowing them to be part of family financial strategy and solutions: rebuilding assets, re-ordering financial priorities, saving, and philanthropy, is one way to teach stewardship and responsibility.
- “If the children in the White House had to wait a whole year to get a puppy, you can wait to (fill in the blank)…” This is a chance to strengthen children’s capacity for delayed gratification–and the notion of earning something important (besides just money.) The Obama girls put up with a lot: their Dad’s non-stop travel; limits on behavior because ‘so many people are watching,’ safety issues; lectures about what is OK to say out loud and what not…Good behavior, in service of family goals is not just important to public officials. It can be a family ethic that has pay-off for children, family, and community.
- “If the children in the White House have to do their homework….” Living in the nation’s most historic house, with access to the Library of Congress and the National Archives is arguably an educational advantage. But not much actually. Exposure is key. Exposure to ideas, places, people, and points of view. Homework is intended (one hopes) as mere busywork, but as an experience to help kids master skills and knowledge, And children who have the privilege of travel and access (to people, places, experiences) can be encouraged to transcend tourism and entertainment for something more akin to the great odyssey the Obama girls have begun. Use every destination as a learning experience; seek out places and people who will reinforce and deepen lessons learned at school. Encourage children to see homework as a threshold to adventure, not just an odious exercise in power and control.
- “If the children in the White House have to live with a curfew…” Every child who chafes under the constrictions of time and supervision might be asked to live a week under the hyper-cautious eye of the Secret Service. The next time the issue of curfew comes up, offer to provide a free-lancing agent as a companion for to late night entertainment!
Canny kids will of course develop a repertoire of retorts:
- Yeah, but THEY get invitations to Hannah Montana parties;
- Yeah but, THEY get to hang out in the Lincoln bedroom:
- Yeah but, THEY get to ride in a private jet ALL the time…
You can ignore these feints. Just think, “What would Mama Obama say?” And follow suit.