The First Daughters Growing Up Right Before Our Eyes

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Twelve-year-old Malia Obama wears braces, toots a flute and is after her father to save the tigers. Younger sister Sasha, who is 9, shoots hoops like her basketball-loving dad and dances hip-hop.
Both girls get up at 6 a.m. to get ready for school.

Barack and Michelle Obama put their girls off-limits to the news media after they moved to the White House, saying they wanted to keep their daughters’ lives as normal as possible. But tidbits about the private doings of the youngest children to live in the White House since the Kennedy family do dribble out. Often they come from a surprising source: Mom and Dad.

It was President Barack Obama who revealed, perhaps to his daughter’s utter embarrassment, that Malia had been fitted with braces. He also spilled her plans to spend most of August at camp.

“She’s my baby,” he said of Malia, straying from his script at a political fundraiser of all places. “Even though she’s 5-(foot)-9 now, she’s still my baby. And she just got braces, which is good, because she looks like a kid and she was getting … she’s starting to look too old for me.”

The prospect of spending even part of the summer without his first born around also had Obama waxing sentimental.

Asked about summer vacation plans, Obama told an interviewer that “a month of it’s going to be taken up with Malia going away for camp, which she’s never done before. And I may shed a tear when she’s on the way out.”

In a separate interview, Obama said his daughters have savings accounts and they get an allowance, though he didn’t say how much they get or how often they get it. He also said the girls are getting old enough where they may be able to start earning money by baby-sitting.

The first lady is also guilty of breaching the privacy wall she and her husband put up around the girls.

“Malia’s one issue for her father is saving the tigers,” Mrs. Obama told an audience of young children visiting the White House. “So we talk about the tigers at least once a week and what he’s doing to save the tigers.” Tigers apparently are Malia’s favorite creature.

Mrs. Obama also has revealed that:

—Both girls play the piano; Malia also plays the flute.

—Sasha likes to dance hip-hop. The girls also are working on their tennis game.

—They are not allowed to watch TV during the week, and weekend viewing is limited.

—The girls can only use the computer during the week if they need to for school assignments.

The White House says the Obamas are just behaving like, well, parents when they talk about Malia and Sasha.

“I think they’re proud of their daughters and, you know, they do not try to go out of their way. There’s no strategic decision to talk about them,” press secretary Robert Gibbs said in an interview. “I think a lot of it comes from … pride.”

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Even their grandmother, Marian Robinson, has dished a detail or two; she said the girls have separate bedrooms.

The Obamas aren’t the first presidential parents to want to shield children from life in the fishbowl known as Washington.

First lady Jacqueline Kennedy sought to keep her children, Caroline and John Jr., out of the glare as much as possible. After she left the White House, she advised other first families with young children, such as Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, to do the same.

Chelsea Clinton, who got married in July, was curly haired and entering her teenage years when Clinton was elected president in 1992. “Saturday Night Live” incurred her parents’ wrath by lampooning her, but the news media generally respected her privacy. It also helped that the Clintons were so tightlipped about Chelsea that it sometimes failed to register that a child was living at the White House.

George W. Bush’s twins, Barbara and Jenna, were living away at college when he was sworn in to office in 2001.

Anita McBride, who was first lady Laura Bush’s chief of staff, said presidents and first ladies are constantly weighing how much they want to shield their children from exposure against how much they’re willing to satisfy public curiosity by talking about them.

“It’s a very fine line,” she said. “People want to know about what’s happening with first families and children in the White House.”

For the most part, Malia and Sasha are kept out of the limelight, except for some trips, such as the family’s vacations in Bar Harbor, Maine, and Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., and other appearances with one or both parents.

The White House has invited some coverage of the girls, such as on their first day of school in Washington in January 2009. But it also complains about other coverage, even when the girls are brought to official events where the media are present.

The girls have spoken publicly at length just once: They and Bo, the family’s Portuguese water dog, joined the first lady last year for a Christmastime reading of stories at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington. They took turns reading a story and helped Mom answer questions afterward.

Once, though, the president got into trouble by talking about Malia — and ended up apologizing to her.

During a speech last year about his education priorities, Obama told the audience at a Madison, Wis., middle school how disappointed Malia was after getting 73 percent on a science test. Gibbs said Obama later apologized to her.

Gibbs didn’t know if Dad also apologized for his revelation about the braces.

“I think he is now very careful to make sure that he does not stray beyond what is acceptable,” Gibbs said.

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