Michael Jackson's sudden death may give his three beloved children something he could never provide -- a chance to be themselves.
The King of Pop devoted his life to creating a fairy-tale Never Neverland for his three young heirs, a world where the reality around them was hidden behind masks or the burly frames of professional bodyguards.
Prince Michael Joseph, 12, Paris Michael, 11, and Prince Michael II, a k a "Blanket," 7, have never attended a day of school. They've never known a neighborhood friend. They sleep together in the same room. And the only outsiders they know are strangers their father would bring in to entertain them.
Last Christmas Eve, Jacko and his dermatologist, Dr. Arnold Klein, -- the suspected father of the two oldest children -- arranged for Carrie Fisher to surprise the kids by reprising her role as Princess Leia in "Star Wars" at their rental mansion in Holmby Hills, Calif.
"Michael brought the kids down in their pajamas and said, 'This is Princess Leia,' " said family friend Stephen Price. "They were so excited! She did her famous speech for them -- the 'Help me, Obi-Wan' speech."
"They are the greatest kids you'll ever meet," Price told Us Weekly of the Jackson kids. "They didn't act like they had silver spoons in their mouths. They are nice and not Hollywood brats. Paris is very polite, a little reserved. Prince is the most outgoing. And Blanket is a sharp kid, but also pretty quiet. When I asked what he wanted for Christmas, he said, 'I just want a stuffed animal.' "
To entertain his kids, Jacko would often take them on midnight shopping sprees in stores specially opened just for them. They hopscotched around the globe from California to Las Vegas to Bahrain to Ireland to New Jersey to Switzerland.
He showered the children with indulgences. In 2007, he shut down parts of the New York, New York Hotel in Las Vegas so he and the kids could play video games and ride the roller coaster. And the kids would show up bleary-eyed at bookshops and toy stores around the world for private shopping sprees at 2 or 3 a.m.
They ate Jackson's favorite -- KFC -- for lunch and dinner.
"Prince I, Paris and Prince II were his life," Michael's longtime pal Dieter Wiesner told Life & Style. "He made breakfast for them -- a lot of people don't know this side of Michael."
Perhaps best of all from a child's perspective -- no school.
"I'm going to build a computer school on the grounds [of Neverland]," Jackson said in an interview. "How can they go into society? He's Prince Michael Jackson. She's Paris Katherine Michael Jackson. It would be too difficult."
He also fathered by example -- and showed them how to take responsibility for themselves, one record producer told Jackson biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli. Prince Michael once spilled popcorn on the studio floor, and the producer bent over to clean up the mess, fearing Jacko would have a diva-like tantrum.
Instead, the megastar apologized.
"He's my kid. I'll clean up after him," Jackson said, according to Taraborrelli.
The producer recalled, "I looked down and there's Michael Jackson on his hands and knees picking up his son's popcorn. I'm not sure you would see Madonna doing that." lol, always mj with the popcorn
Jackson did his best to prevent his kids from becoming brats, friends said.
"He wanted them to have a chance at a childhood which he never had," friend Price recalled. "He wanted to make sure they played, because they are kids first and foremost. He made sure they were taken care of, but he understood the difference between a need and a want. He knew to give them a solid foundation to be good people, and that's what I saw in these kids: bright, intelligent, good people."
Others in Jackson's inner circle agreed.
"He wasn't a disciplinarian but he didn't let the kids run the roost or be spoiled rotten," Stuart Backerman, a former adviser and publicist for Jackson from 2002 to 2004, told The Post.
He recalled a moment in 2004 when he walked through Neverland's kitchen and a 6-year-old Paris spit out her food -- drawing a quietly stern reaction from Jackson.
"Michael looked up and told her, 'We don't spit out food and we don't talk badly about other people in this house, and we have good manners,' " Backerman recalled.
"It didn't mean anything to me at the time, but now as I look back, it reminds me what kind of parent he was."
Jackson insiders say their eccentric father did his best to instill a steely self-confidence in his children.
Jackson's 11-year-old daughter, Paris Michael, exemplified that strength when she took the microphone at his memorial service on Tuesday to say before a crowd of 20,000 -- and millions watching worldwide -- "Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine."
"Without getting over-mushy about it, it might have shown Jackson did a pretty damn good job raising those kids," Backerman said. "She's no shrinking violet, this kid, as you saw. She might have been hidden by veils and skulking around because of the privacy issues all these years, but she showed herself to be a maturing preteen girl."
Still, there was much to be concerned about.
Elvis Presley's daughter, Lisa Marie, was Jacko's first wife and refused to have his babies.
She said that the King of Pop was too emotionally immature to raise a child. The two were divorced within two years of their marriage.
Prince Michael Joseph and Paris Michael were born after Jackson's second wife, Debbie Rowe, the nurse at his dermatology clinic, was artificially inseminated.
Rowe played no part in the children's lives, but she has hinted at a custody challenge in the wake of Jackson's death.
News reports have said the sperm donor may well have been Klein, Rowe's boss who has been oddly close to the children, although he denied those reports yesterday.
"We never saw [Rowe]," a Neverland staffer told Jackson biographer Taraborrelli of life after Prince Michael was born in 1997.
"The baby was cared for by a team of six nannies and six nurses, who worked in shifts so that there were always two nurses and two nannies by his side. They were kept under constant video surveillance, which was monitored by members of Jackson's security team.
"The day team did exercise drills with the baby to build up his strength. The night team read and sang to him. But it was as if he had no mother," Taraborrelli reported.
Another nanny said the air quality in Prince Michael's room was measured hourly, all utensils were thrown away after every use, and toys were tossed each night to be replaced the next day.
Next Monday, Judge Mitchell Beckloff of Los Angeles Superior Court will hear Michael's mother Katherine Jackson's petition for permanent custody of the kids.