Barack Obama rolled into Calgary last week for a midday conversation in front of a sold out Calgary Saddledome.
While the conversation weaved around perks of Air Force One to the future of Alberta’s Energy sector, host Dave Kelly also peppered Obama with many questions about family, parenting, and raising great kids.
Here’s what Obama had to say about parenting that left a mark on me:
“Be kind. And be useful.”
Obama recognizes he’s reasonably young for an ex president, so when it came time for his 3rd act, he leaned on advice he gives his daughters and sought out a way to be kind and useful.
To that end, he and Michelle use the power of The Obama Foundation to create and train leaders. “Most problems don’t get solved because we don’t have solutions” he explained. “But because people don’t organize to get things done – way to solve it is to put leadership in action.”
“Train young people to believe they can make change and to be effective at it,” he said. “It’s more than posting just a hashtag or a tweet.”
“6 to 8 years old are the golden years.”
When interviewer Dave Kelley started waxing about the struggles of parenting 6 and 8 year olds, Obama stopped him and gushed about the good ole days.
Having to do the dirty work like feeding, change, and potty training is done by then, Obama remarked. “And they still think you’re cool and hug you. Enjoy it.”
Isn’t that the truth.
There’s a sweet spot in parenting between the diaper changing and the tween angst. Those years of 5 -9 where they can ‘look after themselves’ but still need help and guidance, they believe in magic, and think you’re a superhero.
On making time for family
When he and Michelle had the conversation about running for President, their first concern was “could we survive this and have our kids not come out weird?” He says becoming President was probably better for his work-life balance as a parent than continuing as a Senator or working in Chicago.
“When you work in the White House, you live above the store. And as a consequence I had a rule with my staff, that at 6:30 every night I’d go upstairs and have dinner with the girls.”
The commute wasn’t very long, he had to walk a couple of hallways and take an elevator, so finding 2 or 3 hours for his family was easy as President.
“And then they’d go do their homework and I’d tuck them in and read, and they’d tell me stuff that I’d miss if I wasn’t there. And then if I had to go back downstairs, I would.”
Obama says the switch from dealing with world problems to helping his kids was spelling was a tonic that brought him down to earth.
“That refuge, that moment of normalcy was critical. It made me do a better job,” he admitted.
“On my death bed, the thing I will remember in those last moments is not going to be a meeting I had, a speech I gave, or legislation I passed, it will be holding hands with my girls at a park.”
“Don’t believe your own hype.”
The spotlight on the President doesn’t just cover themselves, it spreads across to the family as well. Everyone in the family gets glory and attention and the Obamas knew early to tamper expectations.
“Michelle and I benefited by being really normal people until we were about 42 and then we were shot out of a cannon,” he says. “But we were really grounded.”
“We made sure our kids never believed their own hype. When people were very polite and attentive to our kids were nice we explained ‘you haven’t done anything, you’ve leaned to tie your shoes and that’s good, but don’t be too impressed.'”
“Kids mostly have tantrums when hungry or tired.”
Obama spoke a lot about knowing what you don’t know and bringing in a diversity of opinions and experience around decision-making tables to fill in any blind spots. He’s not afraid to give credit where it’s due, and when it comes to the type of daughters he has, he gives Michelle all the credit.
“I think the most important thing Michelle did with the kids is to understand early on that kids actually need structure. Our kids never had tantrums. And part of the reason is Michelle was really good about keeping routine.”
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Clark Reynolds, 3, looks up at President Obama during a reception in celebration of African American History Month at the White House in 2016. I made a big print and gave it to Clark’s mother. President Obama inscribed it: “Dear Clark, Dream big dreams, and work hard to achieve them—you will do great things!” This photo and backstory is featured in my book, Obama: An Intimate Portrait.
“There will be consequences.”
Along with the routine and keeping their kids grounded, the Obamas were strict.
Obama told a story about a high school incident involving his daughter that other parents wouldn’t be too fussed over, but found Malia grounded for an entire semester.
“We taught the girls early on that you were responsible for your actions,” he said. “There were consequences if you made mistakes, but it didn’t mean we didn’t love you. Our attitude was we will explain to you what we think you did wrong, we won’t scream and yell, but if you screw up there’s consequences.”
Now having a tight leash of expectations didn’t mean his daughters weren’t allowed freedom and choice and the ability to learn on their own how to make decisions.
“You’re training kids to become functioning adults, so you explain early to them this how you act.”
“If you try, who knows. Stuff might work out.”
Obama shared that he’s more of an optimist and a “glass half full person” than his wife and hopes his daughters pick up that trait.
“I do hope my daughters get a sense from me that for all the frustrations you go through that what a joy what a blessing and how curious this thing called life is.”
“When I speak to young people I’m always reminding them we’re inundated with bad news. But if you had to choose a moment in all the world history to be born and you didn’t know what you would be, the answer would have to be ‘now.'”
“The world has never been more peaceful, better educated, healthier, wealthier and more tolerant.”
“So I hope my girls get some of that. If you try, who knows. Stuff might work out.”
“I’m the brunt of all mockery in my household”
All the dads just smiled and nodded.