Ever since the presidency of John F. Kennedy, America has gotten glimpses of life at the White House for a First Family with kids. Caroline and John Kennedy, Jr. were super young and left abruptly, as we well know. Amy Carter came with her parents to Pennsylvania Avenue a decade later, followed by Chelsea Clinton a decade after that. With the Obama daughters Malia and Sasha, we’re back again with a First Family in residence at the White House.
There’s extraordinary privilege involved for the children of our presidents, but undeniable challenges as well — not simply for them, but also for the President and First Lady as they define together what family life will be like in that very particular setting.
Below, PRK contributor Anne Fishel speaks with reporter Jodi Kantor of the NY Times about the Obamas’ commitment to a perfunctory but increasingly challenging activity for many American families — eating dinner together.
Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D.
The Family Dinner Project
Jodi Kantor, a New York Times reporter, has recently published The Obamas, a book about the First Couple’s marriage. In it Kantor highlights the President’s commitment to having dinner with his family five times a week.
After years of a commuting life while Obama served as a state then US senator, moving into the White House finally gave the President and Mrs. Obama the opportunity of having some semblance of normalcy living and eating together. In an interview with Kantor last week, I asked her about the President’s commitment to family dinners and how this commitment might be connected to the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign.
Why do you think
regular family dinners has been such an important goal for the Obamas?
Part of what’s fascinating is that this is the first time the couple lived in the same house. During their marriage, Obama commuted to Springfield, the Illinois capital, as a state senator starting in 1997, and then to Washington, D.C. in 2005, when he was elected US senator. His absence was a source of frustration. Over a two-year period he was home for only a handful of times. He felt so guilty that he even cried about missing his girls to some of his friends. When he became President, he established a rule that he wouldn’t miss more than two days. Some readers have reacted by really applauding his commitment to his family, but other readers have reacted by saying ‘I have a regular job and I can’t do that.’
To what lengths does the President have to go to keep to that commitment?
It was really a matter of indoctrinating the scheduling staff, which determines who gets time with the President. There are 33 people in charge of his schedule. If there were meetings scheduled during dinner, he would protest to senior advisers and tell them they’d have to change the schedule.
Often parents’ ideas about the importance of family dinners derive from their own childhood experiences—they want to replicate a positive experience they had, or they want to make up for something they missed. What was the role of family dinners in the families the First Couple grew up in?
The First Lady had a stable routine (growing up), with both parents home for dinner. When they got older, she and her brother realized that if their father had had a higher-status job, he might not have been home as much.
The President’s father left when he was young. His mom sent him to Hawaii to live with his grandparents. His childhood was marked more by separation and distance. He wants to make it different for his own kids.
Who are your sources on the First Family’s family dinners? Who was willing to talk to you about this nightly ritual?
I don’t give specific names. I talked to former aides, close Obama friends — about 200 people.
I’m curious about the kind of food that the First Family has for dinner. I’ve read that Sam Kass is the White House chef, and that he also cooked for them in Chicago. Is the First Family at all involved in dinner preparation?
The Obamas don’t cook. Sam Kass takes primary responsibility. Dinner is served to them. The girls help out in a token way, like clearing their plates. They can assemble their breakfasts.
What does the family like to eat?
I’m not sure what they eat, but you can check on the website that has Sam Kass’ recipes for First Family dinners.
You mention in your book that pie is the President’s favorite dessert. Do they usually have dessert, and if so what?
My sense is that the President is quite abstemious, and he is not a big dessert eater. They are all very careful eaters.
It’s been reported elsewhere that the First Family plays “the rose and thorn” game at the table, a game The Family Dinner Project has played, too, at community dinners. In it, everyone goes around the table saying something positive (the rose of the day) and something negative or difficult (the thorn). Do you know what else they talk about at the table?
The most important question is whether they discuss the presidency. What is it like to be president, when something disappointing happens how do they talk about that? In the book, I tell how after the [Gulf] oil spill, while he was shaving, his daughter asked him, “Did you plug the hole yet?”
The First Lady’s initiative, “Let’s Move” with its focus on fighting obesity, seems a more populist way of supporting her husband’s health care law, but coming at it through prevention and lowering costs. Do you think that she also draws a connection between
her mission of eradicating obesity and the importance of family dinners?
Childhood obesity has so many different causes. She doesn’t play up any one cause more than any other. I have not heard her say that every family needs to eat together as much as possible. Part of the reality of living in the White House is that they have incredible privileges. Speaking from the bully pulpit of the White House, she can’t decree that everyone should have dinner when not everyone can. She’s very careful about what she suggests for other people to do. She can’t set standards that people can’t reach. She can’t cause backlash. She has to think about military service men and women, factory workers, check-out workers who can’t have regular family dinners.
Has there been any evidence that her Let’s Move initiative has had an impact on bringing down rates of obesity in children?
Childhood obesity has been almost an intractable problem. There is no proven formula, no recipe, just some promising research. It’s a measure of her that she chose something really hard—it’s such an ambitious goal. It’s way too early to measure. And, we may never know: if the problem gets better, we won’t know if it’s her influence. She’s been so successful in raising awareness, in changing social norms. There’s never been someone of her stature who’s said that portion size at restaurants is way of out hand.
Anne K. Fishel is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, and Director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Mass General Hospital. This interview was first published at The Family Dinner Project.
Read some of Anne’s recent posts on PRK
Coaxing the Picky Eater
Meeting Your Child’s Sweetheart: 12 Tips For A Successful Meal
Context Is Everything: The ‘Where’ Of Family Dinners
Ethics, Civil Discourse And The Family Meal