Do parenting and patriotism mix?
They do if you’re the founding or presiding fathers of our country, from George Washington right up to our current first dad, President Obama!
With their double role as leaders of our country and leaders of their family, the U.S. Presidents bring a unique perspective to parenting and family matters. But the same traits that helped them guide the nation – leadership, tenacity, loyalty, diligence – were likely both a help and a hindrance when it came to raising their children.
While most parents wrestle with the work-family conflict, the complexity of the presidency takes this struggle to a whole new level. While some first dads approached their dual role of leader/father with equal levels of devotion, others let their presidential concerns consume them, making them absentee fathers in the process.
As author Joshua Kendall points out in his new book First Dads: Parenting and Politics from George Washington to Barack Obama, most presidents have consistently put work over family. “After all, a single-minded focus on one’s career is the most direct path to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” writes Kendall, whose book bridges the connection between the presidents’ parenting styles and their effectiveness in the Oval Office.
So, let’s break it down. What parenting lessons can we learn from our forefathers?
(16th President, 4 sons)
Long before the phrase “free-range parenting” described a parenting style, Abraham Lincoln embodied this let-kids-be-kids approach to child-rearing. As a permissive parent, Lincoln spoiled his kids, often allowing them free reign of the White House. Two of the boys, Tad and Willie, often took full advantage of Lincoln’s leniency.
In White House Kids: The Perks, Pleasures, Problems, and Pratfalls of the Presidents’ Children, author Joe Rhatigan reveals the prankster side of Lincoln’s boys. One time, Tad and Willie pulled all the bell cords in the White House, simultaneously summoning the servants, Cabinet members and secretaries and creating a state-of-the-union frenzy in the process. Another time, the boys created a huge mess with paint supplies brought in by an artist commissioned to paint a presidential portrait. No one recalls any resulting punishment from the boys’ misdeeds.
Not much of a disciplinarian, Lincoln allowed Tad to interrupt important meetings and even canceled war counsels with generals when Tad wanted to go for a carriage ride.
“It is my pleasure that my children are free, happy, and unrestricted by parental tyranny,” explained Lincoln.
With heavy political matters weighing on Lincoln’s mind, playing with his children provided him with a great sense of relaxation, whether they were roughhousing on the floor or playing catch outside.
Since firstborn Robert would be the only Lincoln child to live to adulthood, the president’s enjoy-your-kids-while-you-can philosophy served him well.
(19th President, 7 sons, 1 daughter)
With a large family to fill the White House, Rutherford B. Hayes brought a lively, informal vibe to his tenure as commander-in-chief. And, unlike most men of his time, Rutherford B. Hayes took a very hands-on role caring for his eight children (three of whom died in infancy).
Hayes softer side likely stems from his fatherless childhood. After the sudden death of his 35-year-old father just months before the future president was born, Hayes’ mother and older sister raised him in a warm and loving environment. This nurtured upbringing spilled over into Hayes’ adulthood, as he led the nation---and his family---in a calm, comforting manner. Whether caring for wounded soldiers fresh off the battlefield or nursing his sick children back to health, Hayes’ knew how to calm and comfort others.
Never one to delegate his fatherly duties, Hayes made being there for his kids a welcome priority. As proof of his hands-on approach, Kendall cites how Hayes chaperoned his young son’s birthday party and took a week off to help his older son settle in as a college freshman.
In a letter to his son, Webb, he passed on this fatherly advice, “Do not let your bachelor ways crystallize so that you can’t soften them when you come to have a wife and a family of your own.”
Our 19th president, a softie. Who knew?
(26th President, 4 sons, 2 daughters)
An active, adventurous, rowdy First Dad, Teddy Roosevelt approached fatherhood the way he approached politics---with great gusto. Playful and powerful, Roosevelt bonded with his six kids through games, sports, roughhousing, pillow fights, taking care of their menagerie of pets, playing tag in the attic, telling ghost stories and even snuggling in bed together many mornings.
“I love all these children and have great fun with them, and I am touched by the way in which they feel that I am their special friend, champion, and companion,” Roosevelt said.
Fun-loving Roosevelt brought a youthful energy to the White House, encouraging imaginative play and teaching his sons how to shoot, box, swim row, sail, and ride, according to Kendall. He encouraged his kids, both boys and girls, to grow up tough, “manly,” and active. Leading by example, rugged Roosevelt went hunting, fishing, and horseback riding.
No matter how busy his schedule got, Roosevelt made time for his kids, starting with the family’s morning ritual of sharing breakfast together. And in the summer of 1905, although busy preparing for peace talks and consulting experts about building the Panama Canal, Roosevelt still found time for the family camping trip he took every year.
After winning the 1904 election, he wrote to his 15-year-old son, Kermit, “No matter how things came out, the really important thing was the lovely life with Mother and you children, and that compared to this home life everything else was of very small importance from the standpoint of happiness.”
(36th President, 2 daughters)
Nestled in among the playful, family-focused first dads, you’ll find Lyndon B. Johnson, a president so preoccupied with the pressing duties of his office that he didn’t spend a lot of quality time with his two daughters, Lynda and Luci.
But what Johnson lacked in attentiveness, he made up for in his ability to share many teachable moments with his patient, understanding girls (both teens when he became President).
“I can show you a note from my father on my seventeenth birthday—it’s actually the only handwritten letter I have from him,” said Luci in an interview with Texas Monthly, “A history teacher always, he timed it at 12:10 p.m. At four o’clock that afternoon he signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Can you imagine a better birthday present for me, something that changed all of our lives? What a thrill.”
While most teen girls might have felt slighted, Luci understood the important work her father was charged with. In fact, Johnson often imparted life lessons to his daughters through the political issues at hand, such as civil rights or education
“Luci, it doesn’t matter what color you are. It doesn’t matter what your ethnicity is. If you don’t have an opportunity to take advantage of all the education you can, you’ll never be your best,” Johnson advised her.
Forever a teacher at heart, Johnson molded his daughters through teachable moments, presidential style.
(44th President, 2 daughters)
The quintessential modern day parent, President Obama takes an authoritative approach to raising his family. He’s calm, steady, nurturing, attentive, deliberate, loving and firm.
“We're a strong believer in structure and rules, and unconditional love but being pretty firm, too,” explained Obama at a September 11, 2015, town hall meeting held with service members at Ft. Meade.
Obama points out that he and first mom Michelle implemented structure and discipline when their two daughters, Sasha and Malia, were very young, especially when it came to common issues all parents deal with---bedtime, watching TV and eating their vegetables.
“If you start early enough with high expectations, I think kids do well with that,” Obama advised. “Part of that involves loving those kids to death but also letting them know, ‘I’m your parent, I’m not your best friend. I’m not that interested in what your friends are doing. This is what you’re doing in our house. When you leave here, you’ll be able to make your own decisions, but we’re trying to prepare you so that you’ve got some sense when you get out of here.’”
Obama also stressed the importance of sharing family meals together as a way to connect.
“As much as possible, when we’re home, they have to sit down and eat dinner with us. I’m a big believer in not getting the TV trays out and watching the Kardashians,” said Obama. “You sit down, leave your cell phones somewhere else and we’ll have a conversation.”
Whether they’re leading the nation or leading their families, the U.S. Presidents, through both their strengths and their weakness, can teach us a few lessons about what it means to be a good parent.