Parenting Lessons from the Obamas

Last week, I told my 10-year-old that Sasha Obama, the president’s 15-year-old daughter, missed her father’s major farewell address in Chicago because, according to press reports, she had a science test the next morning. The smile and “wow” that came from my hard-to-impress daughter said a lot to me. This was true awe, from someone who, in her own personal way, is learning to balance the demands of school, family commitments, extracurricular activities, friends, and personal time. 

The president and his family live a very public life that’s endlessly scrutinized, with every pronouncement and action making a statement, whether intentionally or not. As parents, the Obamas have set a model example for the rest of us, raising two girls who by all accounts are extraordinary and grounded, despite the unusual circumstances of the past eight years.

As they prepare to leave the White House, here are the top seven parenting lessons I learned from First Lady Michelle Obama and President Obama: 

1. Make the time, even when you don’t think you have it. President Obama had dinner with his family as often as possible, insisting his schedule be configured so he could be home five nights per week for supper. He liked to say that that was a perk of “living above the store,” having a “45-second commute” from the Oval Office to the White House residential quarters. Of course, the length of the commute is not what would keep most presidents from the family dinner table, but Obama made sure to be there, despite the stresses and demands of the job. It makes me realize how often I am distracted while home with my kids, checking my phone and thinking about work rather than being fully engaged with them. 

2. Stick to your values and priorities, even when there is reason not to. None of us on the outside can know what went into the decision for Sasha to stay home and miss her father’s farewell address. But I have trouble believing that they couldn’t work something out for her to take her test another day. Nevertheless, she stayed home and, presumably, took her test. Sometimes school comes first, no matter what. 

3. That said, know when to bend the rules. The Obama girls have seen their share of the world these past eight years, going on trips with one or both of their parents that most of us can hardly even dream of. No doubt, at least some of these were during the school year and required them to play a little well-planned, highly coordinated hooky. Sometimes we decide that school does come second, and that’s ok, so long as our kids—and we parents—work with their teachers to make it right.   

4. Don’t just preach—provide opportunities that guide your kids to healthy decisions. From the White House swingset to the vegetable garden nearby, the Obamas made sure their girls had fun ways to stay fit and eat right. They understood that if their kids were engaged and having fun, they’d be more likely to make the right choices. Michelle Obama spread this spirit from her home to the rest of the country through her Let’s Move campaign. It’s a good reminder that good practices don’t just happen on their own; it’s up to us to insill them in our kids creatively and effectively. 

5. Don’t be embarrassed to be yourself. Whether making bad dad jokes in front of the kids—not to mention the whole world—or sporting those, um, unflattering dad jeans, Obama displayed his personal, human side in public, showing his daughters and all of us that we cannot turn off certain parts of ourselves. Being ourselves authentically and fully is the best way to show our kids how to live comfortably and confidently in their own skins and in the world. 

6. Don’t be afraid to show or express emotion—or even cry. Obama can get downright mushy and even teary when it comes to expressing his feelings for his wife and kids, as he did in his farewell speech. Much as it’s hard for me to fathom, there are still are those who believe men shouldn’t cry, and plenty of dads still have trouble expressing emotion. It’s time to take a cue from our departing dad-in-chief and get over that. 

7. Live a life of charity. That White House swingset? It now lives at a Washington, DC, shelter to which the Obamas donated it—and followed up by visiting the kids and pushing them on the swings. Charity is something you give and something you do.   

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