Share this article

print logo

President in the hot seat: Family vacation with teenage girls

KAILUA, Hawaii — As president, Barack Obama must contend with challenges of global importance, even while on vacation. But, as a father, he potentially faces a test on the home front: A two-week family vacation with teenage daughters.

Malia, 16, and Sasha, 13, have come here — to the place their father spent much of his childhood — almost every Christmas since they were born, and every year Obama has been in office.

But now that they are teenagers, they have entered the years when experts say children are less interested in, say, a beach day with the parents.

Despite the unique experience of growing up in the White House, protected by Secret Service agents and minders who carefully control their media exposure, the Obama daughters appear, in rare glimpses, to be, well, teenagers who at times show spunk and independence.

They take selfies. They roll their eyes at their father’s jokes. They prefer Beyoncé to the singalongs in “Frozen.”

“I used to use my kids as an excuse to see all the Disney movies,” Michelle Obama recently told People magazine, “and now I beg them and they won’t go.”

These days appear to be different for the family than they were in 2011, when the daughters were photographed holding their father’s hands on a visit to Sea Life Park in Waimanalo.

In an interview on “Live with Kelly and Michael,” Barack Obama told the hosts, Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan, that Malia went to her first prom.

“It’s fair to say that the first time you see your daughter in heels, it’s a little bit jarring,” he said. When asked if she went with a boy, the president joked that is “classified information.”

On Dec. 19, Sasha, in a white sundress and wood-soled sandals, and Malia, in a polka dot dress with a denim tote, stepped off Air Force One with their parents at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, looking less than enthusiastic after the nearly 10-hour flight.

“Sasha and Malia look like they are struggling to get into the holiday spirit,” a headline in the Daily Mail read.

On Friday, they joined their parents and friends of the first family for a nearly cloudless 79-degree afternoon on a secluded, white sand beach at Bellows Air Force Station in Oahu.

The White House keeps careful watch on the Obama daughters’ portrayal in the news media, only permitting reporters rare and typically controlled glimpses of them. The journalists who travel with the president are instructed not to photograph the first daughters without their parents, and only periodically get details about how they are spending their time here. A spokeswoman for the first lady declined to comment.

On Christmas morning, the Obamas opened presents and sang carols at their rental home in an upscale residential neighborhood here, a White House official said, a Rockwellian scene compared to the day before Thanksgiving in Washington, when Sasha and Malia did not look impressed by the annual presidential turkey pardon.

The first daughters fidgeted and rolled their eyes. When Obama asked his daughters if they wanted to pet the pardoned turkey, Malia shrugged. “Nah,” she said, drawing a laugh from the audience. A headline in BuzzFeed read: “The Obama Girls Could Not Be More Bored By Their Dad’s Jokes. Ugh. Parents.”

As Bill and Hillary Clinton would attest, it is difficult to protect a teenage daughter in the White House. Chelsea did not have a reputation for angst, yet at 12 she endured stinging criticism from conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh.

President George W. Bush’s twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, made headlines after they were caught trying to buy and drink alcohol before they were 21.

But Sasha and Malia are the first presidential children growing up in the era of social media, where teenagers’ interactions with each other and the criticism lobbed at them takes place so often.

A Republican congressional aide, Elizabeth Lauten, resigned amid backlash after she criticized the Obama daughters in a post on Facebook after the turkey pardon. “Dear Sasha and Malia, I get you’re both in those awful teen years, but you’re a part of the first family, try showing a little class,” she wrote. (Lauten later apologized.)

Parenting experts say a family vacation can be a good time to give teenagers a little more independence than they get at home, even if that means allowing them to sleep until noon.

“They may see the vacation as finally a chance to break free, whereas parents see it as a chance to get together,” said Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist who specializes in teenagers. “That can be tricky,” she added.