On Wednesday, Michelle Obama attended the Obama Foundation summit in Chicago and spoke with poet and close friend Elizabeth Alexander about things that are most important to her. Among them: family and the arts.
“Art is the first language we speak, truly,” she told the audience during the on-stage discussion. “Every child, before they talk, they’re given some paper, a pencil, some crayons … It’s life that yanks that instinct from them. We’re now living in public school systems where art, music, P.E.—the things that bring life and joy are the first things that are cut. It’s often the hook that gets kids to then understand that math is important, it’s the thing that gets them to school to do reading. We are trying to remind this country, this world, that arts are not a luxury. It’s the thing that unites us.”
When it comes to raising women to be strong and confident in their own voice, the former First Lady has pointers. “We ask [women] to speak up, we ask them to speak their mind, we ask them to just say no, to speak out against sexual harassment, to speak out against inequality—but if we don’t teach our young girls to speak at an early age, that doesn’t just happen. It takes practice to have a voice," she said. "You have to use it again and again and again before you can say ‘No’ or ‘Stop. Don’t touch me.’"
That being said, Obama also stated the importance of being careful with the voice you have, and not abusing the power that comes with it. “When you have a voice, you can’t just use it any old way,” she said. “You don’t just say what’s on your mind—you don’t tweet every thought. Most of your first initial thoughts are not worthy of the light of day. I’m not talking about anybody in particular—I’m talking about us all,” she clarified, inciting an eruption of laughter from the audience. “Tweeting and social media—that is a powerful weapon that we just hand over to little kids. You need to think, and spell it right, and have good grammar, too.”
Amen, Mrs. Obama.
Between giving empowering speeches and serving as a role model to both her two daughters and women and men across the world, Michelle says it’s essential to find some time for herself. “When you have children, you have to be fiercely organized to get anything done. I learned that if I don’t put myself up on the priority list, somehow my kids will eventually get knocked down on that list, “ she explained.
“Our health is the thing that will keep us going. It’s something that we cannot afford to ignore. Whatever that is for you; it has to happen. I can get a lot done, but I have to be organized about me. I have to plan my happiness. We think happiness just happens—and it can, but you have to work in some happiness too. You’ve got to think about, in this year, when am I going to laugh? When am I going to have fun? When am I going to stop and smell the roses? And then you’ve got to plan it—because if you don’t, the work, the need, the agenda, will overcome everything.”
Part of that essential self-care involves logging some time with her gal pals said Michelle, who wore a multicolored plaid dress for the occasion.
“I love my husband and he is my rock, but my girlfriends are my sanity. And when you live eight years in the White House, and you can’t even open a window, you can’t walk out on your balcony without notifying three people, your walk outside is you walk around the same circle in the south lawn over and over again, because the thought of you leaving those gates requires 50 people’s attention, and work and convenience. … When you live like that for eight years, you need your girlfriends. And nothing is spontaneous. All our spontaneity was basically taken away from us. I even do this now, like, ‘Can I leave?’ I don’t leave until some 30-year-old tells me ‘Ma’am, you can leave now.’ I had to plan my time with my GFs that kept me grounded and brought me laughter.”
As for parenting, Michelle has a directive straight from her mother: raise your children to be "independent, well-meaning, kind, compassionate people."
"Sometimes we treat our children too preciously because of the issues they’ve dealt with," she said. "Barack and I, we thought about with Malia and Sasha, OK, we could’ve spent eight years feeling sorry for them that they were living in a bubble that every misstep for them would be on YouTube, that their privacy, they didn’t have access to their father in a way … We could’ve felt bad for them, and there would’ve been a truth there. But our view was this is their life, and we can’t apologize for the life they have because a whole lot of it is good.”
“I can’t cherish you to death. We have to raise our children to be the adults that we want them to be, and that starts young. You can’t be so afraid that life will break them that you don’t prepare them for life. Sometimes our fear keeps us from pushing our kids out into the cold cruel world. And then they’re not ready and we wonder why.”
Those are some powerful words.