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How Michelle Obama Told Malia About the Unglamorous Side of Adulting

We love former First Lady Michelle Obama for oh so many reasons: her wisdom, grit, compassion, transparency, strength, true leadership skills…the list goes on. And this week we’re adding “respect for failure” to her list of great qualities. Yep, the uber-successful Obama knows how to value the opposite of success, as well as all the difficult and unglamorous steps necessary on the road to said success. And she’s passing those values along to her daughters, too.

This week on The Michelle Obama Podcast, Obama spoke with Valerie Jarrett — Michelle’s former boss and senior advisor to President Barack Obama as well. The topic at hand? Starting from the bottom and getting where you want from there.

“I tried to make the point to Malia,” Obama told Jarrett of her work advice to her youngest daughter (now 22), “that the young people…who are my mentees, I reminded her that they started out, several of them, in the campaign, doing some of the grunt-iest jobs.”

We kind of never thought we’d hear our once and forever queen say the word “grunt-iest” with such esteem, but it actually makes total sense. After all, Obama knows the value of hard work and dedication (as opposed to, say, certain others in politics who never had to work an assistant job or make somebody else’s coffee thanks to their dad’s money. But we digress).
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“But the people who are with me now,” Obama continues on the podcast, “and who now have responsibilities over my schedule, or they’ve helped run a big book tour, or they are running, our higher ground productions and working with Netflix, almost all those people started out doing some grunt work.”

For so many of us who started out doing “grunt work” — whether as assistants, interns, in retail, service, construction, sanitation, you name it — hearing Obama’s appreciation of the necessity of all kinds of workers is super validating. And, as she explained on the podcast, she not only wants her daughters to get their hands dirty; she wants them to seriously screw up in some ways, too.

“I never want young people to think that failure isn’t a part of everybody’s journey,” Obama told Jarrett. “What does it do for me if… some kid thinks I’ve never had a failure, that that’s the only way you can be first lady, is if you’re perfect? No one is.”

Hear that, struggling kids and parents everywhere? Failure is okay! Even the Obamas do it! You are normal!

In fact, it’s important to let kids fail well before they’re young adults like Obama’s daughters. Clinical psychologist Dr. Jamie Howard previously told SheKnows that when addressing failures with younger kids, “failing can be reframed as trying, practicing and putting in effort.”

“Kids are more resilient than parents believe,” clinical psychologist Michael D. Thompson also told SheKnows. “They’re more likely to pick themselves up and dust themselves off and start all over again.”

And isn’t that kind of resiliency something all of us could use more of in 2020? Here’s to parents like Obama who are teaching young people that adulting isn’t always easy — and that their work, whatever it may be, is worth celebrating.

These beautiful children’s books starring girls of color will teach our daughters valuable lessons, too.

Childrens books black authors

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