I remember during the MEP elections I saw footage of a smiling Simon Busuttil walking towards the polling station to cast his vote with his young son. Although the Opposition leader attempted to draw the boy close to him, his son scowled and shrugged away as kids tend to do when they are being forced to do something against their will. It was an unfortunate moment caught on film which perfectly encapsulated why politicians should be wary of involving their children in these “photo ops”.
I was reminded of this footage when I saw the photo of Obama’s two daughters standing next to him during one of his speeches, with the youngest one (dressed like a typical, trendy teenager) looking visibly bored and wishing to be a million miles away from the whole staged event. Apart from the fact that the Obama daughters’ attire was criticized by a snarky Republican blogger for not being appropriate for the occasion, there was also flak directed at the youngest for not acting suitably dignified and for “pulling faces”.
But, come on, these girls are young teenagers. The event was the annual “pardoning of the turkey” and at this age they are are clearly over it.
They have grown up in the harsh glare of the media’s relentless spotlight completely without their consent (I hardly think Michelle and Barack asked their permission before he ran for office). And no matter how much their famous parents may try to drum into them that they have to behave a certain way, there has to be a semblance of normality for these girls who have spent their formative years growing up in such a surreal environment. After all, how many kids can say they grew up in the White House?
There will come moments in every teenager’s life when they will rebel and go against every single thing their parents say – and that is a good thing, because if they do not rebel during that phase when it is supposed to happen, you can be sure the rebellion will erupt later on, either in their 20s, or more disruptively for everyone, at middle age.
The point is, if it’s difficult for the rest of us to go through those painful teenage years of dubious self-image and adolescent angst and come out of it relatively OK, I cannot begin to imagine how it affects those whose parents are in politics. It is for this reason I also think that the PM and his wife should be more careful of how much they are exposing their twins to the media. Of course they are very cute and the photos are always endearing, but as the saying goes “haters gonna’ hate” and just like the Obama girls have now outgrown the “cute” stage and are being targetted for simply being who they are, so will the Muscat twins continue to be at the receiving end of a nasty backlash, the older they get.
What I always like to bear in mind when it comes to children and politics is that they have had no say when it comes to the choices which their parents have made. They are in the limelight simply because they happened to be born in this specific family, whose circumstances have placed them in office at this particular point in their lives. In Malta, when previous Prime Ministers had children who were already adults at the time they took office, they could decide for themselves whether to appear at official events and photos, but when it comes to minors it is the parents who are making these decisions.
But as children grow older and approach those sensitive adolescent years, their feelings must be taken into account.
In Obama’s case I would have asked the girls if they wanted to be present, and if so, then perhaps they needed to be dressed less casually and at least try and look interested. If they really did not want to attend they shouldn’t have. Based on the photo, however, it seems they were pressured to attend and to be photographed simply to boost Obama’s flailing image. In the end, not only did this attempt at PR backfire, but I doubt it did any good for Obama’s relationship with his daughters. And, at the end of his career, when his Presidency will simply be a footnote in history, it is his role as their father which will matter most for his daughters.
Perhaps our own politicians on both sides of the political divide should remember that, the next time they arrange a photo op which includes their children.