As we prepare for the coming transition in the White House, I’m thrilled to be writing a parenting column, not a political one. Five years ago, I read New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor’s then-new book, The Obamas, as their second term was beginning. The parts of the book that describe the Obamas’ early life in politics are the most interesting for parents. They struggled in the pre-2008 election years with the dilemma of how a Barack Obama presidential candidacy might impact the Obama family dynamic. Specifically, how would it affect Sasha and Malia? According to Kantor, Michelle Obama weighed the potential benefits of remaining with the girls in Chicago for a while, sheltered from the political storm and in their familiar schools (should her husband be elected), versus the girls’ need to have dad around whenever he would have a few spare minutes.
Parents do lots of planning–how big should their family be, where should they live, what kind of car should they drive. Financial planning, school planning, vacation planning. But many parents wait until it’s too late to make the most important plan of all: a plan for managing the time they have with their kids. The Obamas’ dilemma, as they gazed into the future of their family, is the perfect example–actually the extreme example–of that most important plan you’ll ever make as parents.
The time you spend with your kids is the key ingredient for their success, and the greatest determinant of your own sense of fulfillment and satisfaction as a parent. You know how hard it is to juggle the needs of your kids with your own adult priorities and responsibilities. But the actual amount of time you spend with your kids is less critical than what you make of that time. The time you have with your kids is fleeting, so it’s all about how well you are able to turn precious minutes into cherished moments.
History (and perhaps personal memoirs by the Obama girls someday) will ultimately tell how successful the President and First Lady were in protecting their precious family minutes so they could become cherished moments. But what I can tell as a reader and watcher of the news is that the Obamas seem to have done a darn good job, with lessons for all us and our own families. Their early decision to bring Michelle’s mom into the White House was a gamechanger, and a recognition not only of the need for hands-on help, but of the value and wisdom previous generations have to offer our kids. From all reports, the Obamas tried to preserve dinnertime for their nuclear family as often as their jobs would allow. Family vacations were sacrosanct for the Obamas, as was involvement in their kids’ schools. As most parents do, they had to deal with the occasional teenage lapses of good judgment, and it seems to me that they handled those situations sensitively and thoughtfully, protecting their kids’ privacy and limiting the potential damage. Equally importantly, the Obamas avoided embarrassing their kids by any personal lapses of judgement or by drawing excessive outside attention to the kids. Although some criticized the Obamas for choosing private school for their kids, their reasoning was family-based; sending the kids with their Secret Service entourages to public schools would have created daily chaos for the girls. The lesson here is not necessarily to choose private school for our own kids, but rather to consider all potential ramifications of the decisions we make for our kids.
Now, having put ourselves in the Obamas’ shoes for a few paragraphs, put your own parenting life back into context. No matter how busy you are, and no matter how badly your other priorities and responsibilities conflict with your job as parent, you’ve got it easy compared to what the Obamas had to wrestle with as parents. After all, you don’t have your finger on the nuclear trigger, and don’t have to deal with Congress or the media, and don’t have to run for re-election. Doesn’t that make you feel a little better?
Dr. Harley A. Rotbart is Professor and Vice Chairman Emeritus of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children's Hospital Colorado. He is a Parents advisor and the author of books for parents and families, including No Regrets Parenting, 940 Saturdays, and Miracles We Have Seen - America's Leading Physicians Share Stories They Can't Forget. Visit his website and blog at harleyrotbart.com and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.