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LESSONS: GRADES 4-8  ›  First Kids
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CORRESPONDING TEACHER'S TEXT

Can the family of the president live a normal life in the White House? The White House is an office, a museum, and a ceremonial stage, but we tend to forget that it is a home, as well. The American public has always been interested in the lives of the president’s wives, children, and other close relatives. Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945), noted: "I doubt if the public realizes the price that the whole family pays in curtailment of opportunity to live a close family life." When the children of a president leave the house, Secret Service agents are there to protect them. Friends invited over to play at the White House are in awe, at first. After all, it’s not every home that can boast a theatre, swimming pool, tennis courts, and room service. But the first kids are still kids, and although they recognize that their lives are disrupted, they live as normal a life as possible. Above all they try to enjoy the advantages of living in the White House, because their stay is only temporary.

Each new presidential family moves into the White House and is given some flexibility in how to use the rooms set aside for them. These rooms are located on the second and third floors. When thought of as a residence, the White House appears enormous, but only about 10% of the space in the house is devoted to the family’s living quarters. There are bedrooms, a living room, and a dining room on the upper floors. There is also a large glass room, or solarium, that provides an informal area for the family to relax. Depending on the time period, there have been between 8 and 15 rooms available for the family.

Just as the president’s office space in the White House has been set off from the public through various structural renovations, so has that of the first family. It was the large youthful family of Theodore Roosevelt, in fact, that led to the construction of the West Wing in the early 20th century. This new wing allowed the president's office, which was located on the second floor near the family bedrooms, to be moved, along with all the public traffic of government officials, well-wishers, job-seekers, and clerks.

In the first half of the 19th century, for the most part, young girls and boys living at the White House would have been grandchildren of the president and first lady. The presidents tended to be older men whose children had grown and married by the time they were elected to the nation’s highest office. The first child in the White House was the four-year-old granddaughter of John and Abigail Adams, Susanna. Thomas Jefferson’s daughters visited the President’s House quite often. In 1806, Martha Jefferson Randolph gave birth to a son, James, the first child born at the White House.

In 1893, the only child of a president and first lady was born in the White House: Esther Cleveland was the daughter of Grover and Frances Cleveland. There was death in the White House, too. Eleven-year-old Willie Lincoln, son of Abraham and Mary Lincoln, died of a fever in 1862; his grieving mother never quite recovered from this tragedy.

First kids have entertained themselves as those across America have, and it seems the public has always enjoyed the exploits of the presidential pets. Theodore Roosevelt’s family may hold the record for number and variety of animals, including a pony named Algonquin, who once rode the White House elevator; a macaw named Eli Yale; and an assortment of dogs, snakes, cats, and raccoons. Caroline Kennedy rode her pony, Macaroni, on the south lawn. A grandchild of President Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) liked to be pulled on a cart by a goat. The Clintons’ pets, Buddy and Socks, were favorites of children around the country. George and Laura Bush's dogs, Spotty and Barney, were also popular.

The children of presidents and first ladies ride the wave of living as celebrities. Jesse Grant, youngest son of Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877), wrote a book about growing up as a child of a famous soldier and statesman. He remembered neighborhood friends who "flocked to the White House . . . the largest and best playground available." Margaret Truman, daughter of Harry Truman (1945-1953) lived in the White House as a college student. She was not thrilled with saying goodnight to her dates, knowing that Secret Service agents were never too far away. Perhaps Susan Ford summed it up best. She was a senior in high school when her father, Gerald Ford (1974-1977), took office. She enjoyed the privileges of living in the White House, and hosted her senior prom there. About privacy she said: "If you’re in your room on the third floor, you have as much privacy as any kid who goes in her room and closes the door."


Objectives:

By successfully completing this lesson and activities, students will:

  1. Understand the role of the White House as the home of a family.

  2. Trace over time the way the first family is perceived by the public.

  3. Consider the issue of privacy rights of public figures.




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