9 Parenting Tips From Michelle Obama And Her Mom

Michelle Obama's mother, Marian Robinson, joined her on "The Michelle Obama Podcast."
Michelle Obama with her mother, Marian Robinson, and brother, Craig Robinson.
Michelle Obama with her mother, Marian Robinson, and brother, Craig Robinson.

It’s comforting to know that even a young Michelle Obama had temper tantrums.

That was just one thing we learned about the former U.S. First Lady’s childhood in the most recent episode of her podcast. She was joined by her mother, Marian Robinson, and brother Craig Robinson on Wednesday’s finale of “The Michelle Obama Podcast,” where the discussion centred around raising children and all of the fear, chaos and joy that inspires.

Here are some of the parenting insights we learned from the Obama moms:

Invite your kids to question everything

“I used to tell you to question me, and you all sure did run that into the ground,” Marian quipped.

A significant way to teach kids to think critically is to indulge their curiosity, she explained. Even though it might get annoying, and even if you can’t always answer every question, it’s good to make sure kids keep asking questions.

Teach kids self-reliance early

This one was big in the Robinson household, apparently. When her kids’ alarm clocks rang in the morning, Marian used to tell them “You can lay in the bed if you want, I already have my education.”

The result, for Obama, was learning to take responsibility for herself.

“I always felt like, I’m getting up for me,” she said. “I’ve gotta get ready to go to school, not because my mom is making me do it, but because she’s told me that I’m responsible for my education.”

Her parents made sure she understood that she was responsible for her own behaviour, she said.

A young Michelle with her parents Marian and Fraser.
A young Michelle with her parents Marian and Fraser.

“That was also the beauty of you and Dad, is that you made our successes and our failures our own,” Obama said. “You were always there for us, but you believed that ‘You get good grades for you, not for me.’ You never celebrated our victories too much, or you never wallowed in our failures too deeply. ”

It’s definitely hard for a parent to let go, Obama acknowledged, but it’s something she also put into practice with her daughters Malia, now 22, and Sasha, 19.

“If you are looking for a child to be self-reliant when they’re 21, 22, you have to make them practice that as early as 5 or 6 or 7 years old,” she said.

“If you don’t teach a kid how to wake up on their own when they’re young and it’s easy, yeah, you could be waking them up for the rest of their lives because you don’t make them practice it.”

Think of your kids as smart people, even when they’re babies

“A two-day-old baby is a smart person. Fraser taught me that,” Marian said, referring to her late husband and Michelle and Craig’s dad, Fraser C. Robinson III.

“He just decided he was having the smartest kids on earth. That’s the way I thought about you — I thought about you as people who can learn things.”

Even babies have personalities — her two kids did, Obama said. “They were infants when you could see, if you were paying attention, and spending time, and really, listening like your baby has something to tell you.”

If you have several kids, remember that they’ll all have different needs

Robinson and both her grown-up kids agreed that what worked for your first child might not work for your second — even when they’re still babies.

“Craig always looked like he was worrying about something... ever since he was little, his pictures... you could see a worried little child,” Marian said to Michelle. “But then when you came along, I decided I made him too nice.”

This is where the temper tantrums come in — “You came that way,” Marian told her daughter. “You just were determined, you were gonna do it your way. Craig was acquiescent.”

Craig remembered that their mom would tell him that one approach she had for Michelle was giving her two options rather than telling her what to do — hiding the fact that in both options were things her mom wanted her to do.

“That’s some jiu-jitsu parenting!” Obama said, laughing.

Set the same expectations for all your kids, regardless of their gender

Obama said one of the things she appreciated most about her late father was he treated his two kids the same way, even though one was a boy and one was a girl.

Michelle and Craig as kids.
Michelle and Craig as kids.

“As a young girl I got a feeling of empowerment because my dad respected my voice,” she told Craig. “He treated me as your equal, as his equal. If he taught you to do something, I learned how to do it... he was my first role model of what it meant to have a supportive loving man in my life.”

Spend time with your friends who are also parents

Both generations said they learned a lot about parenting and gained a ton of support from their friends who were also parents. It was especially important when her husband was running for office, Obama said, but she thinks it would be helpful for all moms and dads.

“All you’re doing when they were little is, you’re hoping you’re not messing them up,” she said. “You’re learning from what everybody else is doing.”

Don’t air resentments about the other parent in front of your kids

This was another one that Obama said became important in her life when her husband was the president and would often have to work or travel late. But all kinds of parents with all kind of jobs face challenges when it comes to co-parenting, whether they’re together or not. The healthiest approach is generally keeping the kids out of issues parents have with each other, for everyone’s sake.

Michelle Obama with her daughters Malia (left) and Sasha (right), and her mother Marian Robinson.
Michelle Obama with her daughters Malia (left) and Sasha (right), and her mother Marian Robinson.

“I tried to make sure that I wasn’t pouting in front of the kids when Barack wasn’t there,” Obama said. “If I had made a big deal of it, and said, ‘Oh my god, your dad’s not here again,’ ‘Oh, he’s missing this,’ that’s the signal to them: ‘This isn’t normal.’”

But her husband did try his hardest not to let his work interfere with important family time, she said, which made it easier for her to brush it off when it really was unavoidable.

Do your best not to let racism “cancel out” the important messages you teach your kids

When Craig was 11, police officers accused him of stealing a bike that was a gift from his parents — the kind of racial profiling that so many Black people have to put up with. He explained to the cops that the bike was his and invited them to go to his house and ask his parents.

When they did, Marian insisted that the cops apologize to Craig, explaining to them that “what you did was cancel out a whole lot of things that we had been teaching [our kids]. I think you need to come back here to talk to them and at least admit you made a serious mistake.”

Obama and her brother have both had to have the difficult conversation with their kids about how, as Black people, they’re treated differently. That conversation is a really painful one, Marian said.

A protester wears a Barack Obama hoodie during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in the U.K.
A protester wears a Barack Obama hoodie during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in the U.K.

It’s “such a way of life when it comes to interacting with the rest of the world,” she said. “Nobody thinks about the fact that we all come from good families that are trying to teach values. But when you leave the safety of your home and go out into the street, where being Black is a crime in and of itself, we have all had to learn how to operate outside of our homes with a level of caution and fear.”

But Obama said she’s energized by the Black Lives Matter protests, and finds hope in the fact that young Black people who have to learn to live with prejudice are likely to build up more empathy for other groups.

“If you have a good foundation, you are so strong, that you can overcome that. You know, because you are so resilient, because you have had to learn so much empathy and so much self control.”

Accept that you don’t have all the answers

Parenting, to put it mildly, comes with a lot of pressure. “With each generation they’re making parenting harder, they’re making the bar crazier, like, for what a parent is supposed to do,” Obama said. “Here we come with all the rules and all the guidebooks, and we still feel unprepared.”

But everything about parenting is always going to be a work in progress, Marion told her.

“Parents think they have to know all the answers,” Marion said. “And nobody knows all the answers. I was very comfortable saying, ‘I don’t know.’”