Growing Up in the White House: A Look at Some of the First Children

What it's like to be a kid in the White House?

Margaret Truman called it the "Great White Jail" and once lamented that being escorted home to the White House after a date consisted of saying good night under "a blaze of floodlights with a Secret Service man in attendance."

There wasn't much to be done "except shake hands, and that's no way to get engaged," noted the daughter of Harry S. Truman.

Growing up in the White House is a privilege and a predicament, with perks including world travel and confinements including not being able to go anywhere without the Secret Service in tow.

Barron Trump, the 12-year-old son of Donald and Melania Trump, is now nearly as tall as his father, but is rarely seen in public.

Sasha and Malia Obama were 7 and 10 when their dad became the first African-American president. Though their parents shielded them from undue publicity, they were often seen cavorting with their father and mother, Michelle, on the White House lawn and on vacation. 

The Obamas were an affectionate bunch, with Barack and Michelle frequently seen hugging their daughters. Malia is now at Harvard University and Sasha is finishing high school. 

George W. Bush's twin daughters, affectionately described as "wild little girls" by grandma Barbara Bush, knew about the White House before they moved in. They had played hide-and-seek when their grandparents occupied the estate. Jenna once admitted to a "little hanky-panky" atop the White House roof. Jenna and Barbara gave Sasha and Malia a tour of the White House when the latter sisters came to visit before they moved in.

Passing wisdom down to kids about to enter the residence is a bit of a tradition. Steve Ford, son of Gerald, was just shy of starting Duke University as a freshman, when Richard Nixon resigned. "All of a sudden, we all got 10 Secret Service agents, and life changed," he once said. "Trust me, at 18 years old, that's not really the group you're hoping to hang out with."

Nonetheless, Steve Ford wrote a letter to 12-year-old Chelsea Clinton, who moved into the White House in 1993. He advised her to make friends with the Secret Service, as the agents might be her best link to the outside world. It was a small world, in many ways, for Chelsea, who had to endure her father's very public indiscretions and be the bridge between her mother, Hillary, and dad, Bill. 

"I just thought she handled it wonderfully," said Steve Ford. Indeed, now a mother and the backbone of the Clinton Foundation, Chelsea appears to be a self-possessed woman extremely comfortable in her own skin.

John F. Kennedy Jr. and sister Caroline Kennedy may have it the easiest of any children of a modern president — at the outset, at least. John-John was an infant and Caroline a toddler when their parents took over the house. They were so young, they didn't know any different. 

John was famously photographed running around the Oval Office and climbing through the wooden panel of the president's desk. He and Caroline played on the South Portico and were instructed by their well-mannered mother, Jackie, to greet visitors with "How do you do?" and a shake of their little hands.

“It was ‘How do you do?’ day and night, not only to mommy and daddy’s friends but also to the ushers, butlers, maids, policemen, Secret Service, and gardeners, and the people in the kitchen and in the butler’s pantry — whomever they happened to pass,” wrote etiquette expert Letitia Baldrige.

And for the staff, at least, having children in the White House always brightened things up a bit. 

“Everybody was old when I got there,” says Bill Hamilton, who started during the Eisenhower administration as a houseman and storeroom manager. Things changed when the Kennedy family arrived. Caroline and John-John playing had a menagerie of animals, he recounted in a book about White House staff members. Caroline had a pony named Macaroni that she rode on the South Lawn.

“It was just so nice to see. You didn’t think this would ever happen in the White House.”