Obama should speak up more on parenting

Posted Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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One of the highlights of the inauguration was a rare prolonged sighting of Malia and Sasha Obama. From the moment the president's daughters took their seats for the ceremony, CNN could hardy keep its cameras off of them. Only the appearance of their mom and their dad provided a distraction.

Uncivil as our political climate is these days, we do a pretty good job of respecting the privacy of the children of presidents.

Barack and Michelle Obama, George W. and Laura Bush, and Bill and Hillary Clinton all scrupulously shielded their kids from the spotlight, which seems to have turned out well for the kids.

But the unwritten rule (which the National Rifle Association was crass enough to violate) that presidential offspring are off-limits in political conversation serves to obscure an important aspect of the nation's leaders.

That is, their parenting.

For all the attention paid to Barack Obama's childhood -- absentee father, mother with wanderlust, raised partly by grandparents -- less is made of his family life as an adult.

That's too bad, because as an engaged dad keenly interested in his kids' schooling, Obama has a lot to say to the nation.

There's been much said and written lately about the president's aloofness. He doesn't socialize with members of Congress. He doesn't do dinner parties.

No one talks much about Obama's regular dinner partners -- reportedly his wife and children. And the president probably isn't consciously trying to make a policy statement by eating with the family. But a lot of educators, psychologists and politicians across the spectrum would agree that regular family meals with interesting conversations are a great tool for raising smart, and emotionally and physically healthy kids.

During his 2008 campaign, Obama gave a bold speech on Father's Day in an Apostolic church on Chicago's South Side, declaring that too many fathers, especially in African-American communities, had waived their responsibilities to their children.

"We know the statistics that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and 20 times more likely to end up in prison," Obama said. He urged fathers to be engaged in their children's lives and said, "What makes you a man is not the ability to have a child, it's the courage to raise one."

Jesse Jackson denounced Obama for "talking down to black people" and was promptly denounced in turn for being in denial. Somebody needs to address the link between absentee fathers and child poverty, an especially severe problem in black neighborhoods. Who better than the nation's first black president?

In his first term, Obama announced the President's Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative, designed to promote the role of fathers or father figures in children's lives. He sought money to support job training programs for dads and families.

Some conservatives regarded all of this as more evidence of a plot to diminish the institution of "traditional" marriage. Some liberals worried that the president was linking up with conservatives in a pro-family alliance that suggests that parents must be failing the personal responsibility test if they and their children are poor.

Count me as one who wants Obama to speak out forcefully in his second term on behalf of good parenting and strong family bonds. A healthy population and educated workforce begin right there.

There are good reasons for the first daughters to avoid the public eye. But the first dad should be front and center.

Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.


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